Was the 'mancession' just a mirage?

July 15, 2011: 11:36 AM ET

Men are regaining jobs at a faster clip than women and they are moving into traditionally female-dominated corners of the job market, an apparent about-face from last year's so-called 'mancession.'

By Elizabeth G. Olson, contributor

FORTUNE -- Last year's catchy economic phrase was "mancession," as it looked like companies were lopping men off their employment rolls and keeping lesser-paid women in an effort to cut back and keep their businesses afloat.

It looks like that trend has made an about-face, at least for now, according to the Pew Research Center, whose new analysis of federal employment data finds that men are regaining jobs at a faster clip -- and that women are losing them. Not only that, the Pew study found that men are making inroads in industries long dominated by women, like nursing and teaching.

There has been a steady increase over the past decade in the percentage of men earning nursing degrees, according to federal data on the number of people completing nursing programs nationwide.

"Men who have spent the past few years retraining for more in-demand RN [registered nurse] jobs are starting to hit the workforce," says Rob Sentz, spokesperson at economic analysis firm Economic Modeling Specialists, Inc. The percentage of male nurses climbed from 9.5% in 2003 to 12.2% this year, according to the firm's preliminary findings.

Opportunities for men are increasing as the health care industry expands so it can accommodate America's growing elderly population, says Lydia Ostermeier, current president of the National Association of Health Care Recruiters. Also, registered nurses who have delayed retirement for financial reasons will be leaving the profession, making way for new hires, she notes.

"I just convinced my son to change his major to nursing," says Ostermeier, who also is the director of nursing administration at Indiana University Health. "There is more earnings potential as RNs quickly can move on to jobs like clinical managers."

"The pool of male applicants has grown," agrees Seth Lee, director of staffing and recruiting services at BonSecours Health System in Marriottsville, Md. "Instead of traditional MBAs taking these jobs, we're seeing more people who have worked on the hospital floor moving up to other positions like managing oncology services, which are run like business units."

Overall, hiring of men two years into the economic recovery period bested hiring of women in all but one of 16 major economic sectors, according to Pew's study.

Men gained jobs at a faster rate than women in education and health services, professional and business services, and leisure and hospitality. In other sectors, including retail, finance, and federal government, men gained jobs while women lost them, reports Rakesh Kochhar, a Pew senior researcher and a co-author of the jobs report.

This apparent setback for women raises the thorny question of whether -- in contrast to economic recoveries over the past 40 years -- men are being unduly favored in current hiring. In each of the recovery periods since 1970, women have recouped jobs at a faster rate than men, at least within the first two years of the recovery period.

To be sure, jobs data can sometimes only reflect a blip in statistics or a longer-term trend, but economists are not able to sort out definitively until a year or two down the road.

While women's staying power in the workplace was being lauded last year, a more recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington,  D.C.-based think tank, showed that during the recession a larger share of women than men lost jobs in every U.S. industry.

Initially, it looked as if male workers were suffering more from the recession because men outnumber women in fields like construction, manufacturing, and other areas that retrenched at the recession's onset. Women, on the other hand, had jobs in industries such as teaching that, at first, avoided cutbacks.

"It's a tale of two cities," explains Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, which tracks the labor market. "Women and men tend to work in different sectors of the economy, and some of those sectors are recovering faster than others.

"For example, more men than women have gotten jobs in business services," she says. "Perhaps men are being hired as engineers or computer scientists by high tech firms, which are growing."

In retail, an area where men's hiring has greatly outstripped women's, Hartmann says that companies may be hiring more men in response to the pickup in auto and home appliance sales. But hiring for female-dominated jobs, like cashiers, may be slowing because grocery stores and drug stores are increasingly offering self-checkout, she says.

Between the end of the recession in June 2009 through May 2011, men gained 768,000 jobs and women lost 218,000. That followed men losing 5.4 million -- or 71% -- of the 7.5 million jobs that were eliminated in the December 2007 through June 2009 recession.

"Men lost more and have gained back more of what they lost. Women lost less and have gained back less of what they lost," says Hartmann. "It's just that [women's] low point [of employment] was after the recession ended and they've  only recovered 11% [or 301,000 jobs] since then, less than the 24% percent men have recovered," she adds.

Pew's Kochhar noted that women's job ranks took a big hit when local and state governments -- a major source of employment for women -- began to shed jobs. Teachers, also heavily female, have come under the budget axe, as much of the federal stimulus funds that have propped up struggling local education departments are winding down.

Even though women lost a significant number of jobs across the board, the widely publicized data that showed that men lost a hefty two-thirds of all jobs could mean that employers are now favoring male hires, Hartmann says.

"It is possible that the biases that may have affected job loss are now affecting hiring," she concludes.

Such a tilt towards men, if accurate, would eviscerate working women's recent gains in the job market -- just the opposite of the crowing a year ago about women's hard-won workplace security.

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