Finance & Banking Magazine November/December 2015

Economics: Arkansas Unemployment Rates Remain Close for Men and Women

November/December 2015 Issue


The Great Recession of 2007-09 had lasting, and perhaps transformative effects, on the dynamics of our economy. It was a deep recession that had some unique characteristics, and we have seen a long, slow recovery in which some trends in the economic data appear to have changed. Statistics on the roles of men and women in the labor market provide some examples. In the spirit of the theme of this issue of AMP, an exploration of these trends seems apropos.

The recession itself took on a gender-specific character, with some economists calling it a “man-cession.” Many of the job losses that occurred during the downturn were concentrated in sectors and industries that tend to have a higher proportion of men than women — manufacturing and construction, in particular. Meanwhile, service-providing sectors — which have traditionally provided more employment opportunities for women — proved to be far more resilient to the effects of recession. Health care employment, for example, continued to increase throughout the recession and recovery.

The overall impact of the recession on men and women nationwide appears to support the “man-cession” story. From 2007-10, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that employment among men declined by more than 6 percent, with job losses among women falling by only about 3 percent. In terms of absolute numbers, employment losses among women accounted for less than 30 percent of the total.

Here in Arkansas, however, the employment numbers were not quite so skewed: Employment among men fell by less than 6 percent, but employment among women declined by more than 4 percent. Women suffered nearly 40 percent of the job losses in our state.

Similar differences exist when we consider unemployment rates. Nationwide, the unemployment rate for men climbed to 10.5 percent in 2010, while the rate for women peaked at 8.6 percent. Although the unemployment rate for women had historically fluctuated less than the rate for men, this was by far the largest gap in the unemployment rates among men and women recorded in the data.

But in Arkansas, unemployment rates for men and women tracked closely together, peaking at just over 8.5 percent in 2010. More recently, the unemployment rate for Arkansas women has not fallen as rapidly as that for men. Estimates for 2014 show the unemployment rate for women in Arkansas was 6.6 percent, compared to 5.4 percent for men. For the U.S. as a whole, on the other hand, unemployment rates for women and men were not significantly different in 2014, with the rate for women slightly below that for men (6.1 percent versus 6.3 percent).

Perhaps the most significant change we’ve seen over the course of the recession and recovery is an apparent change in the trends for the labor force participation of women (the percentage of employed plus job seekers as a fraction of the civilian non-institutional population). For decades, the participation rate among women was increasing, rising from 34 percent in 1950 to 60 percent in 1999. Meanwhile, the participation rate for men had been steadily declining from 86 percent to about 75 percent. The net effect of these trends was a rising overall participation rate.

The participation rate among women leveled off during the first years of this century, imparting a slight downward trend to the overall rate for men and women. Since the recession, however, the women’s participation rate started to fall, and the decline in men’s participation rate has accelerated. In part, these declines were not unexpected: The long trend toward women entering the labor force had already subsided, and the impact of baby boomers entering their retirement years has been expected to lower overall participation rates. Nevertheless, the timing and magnitude of the downturn in participation rates — and the trend reversal for women — suggest that the recession may have contributed to the abrupt change.

In Arkansas, we see the same patterns but with even more dramatic changes. Participation rates in Arkansas have always been below the national average, but the gaps for both men and women have widened. From 2007 through 2014, the participation rate among Arkansas men fell by 7.4 percentage points, outpacing the 4 percentage point decline for the U.S. The rate for women in Arkansas similarly outpaced the national average decline, falling by 5.4 percentage points — compared to only 2.3 percentage points nationwide.

Whether it is attributable to cyclical effects or demographic developments, recent trends in labor force participation and employment among women have had a significant impact on labor market dynamics.  Looking forward, these trends are likely to have a continuing effect on labor markets and the economy more generally.

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