The myth of the man-cession

October 6, 2009

Sometimes it’s hard to be a man. The current recession is a case in point.

Men account for three quarters of the 7 million U.S. job losses. That has led to talk of a “man-cession.” With male unemployment rampant, women are on the cusp of a historic breakthrough –before the end of the year, women are likely to form a majority of salaried U.S. workers for the first time.

The novelty of the man-cession has been overstated, however. Delve deeper, and men have not been doing so badly by historic standards. Nor have women been making great breakthroughs.

First, recessions are almost always man-cessions. In 2001, the most recent downturn, women accounted for just 14 percent of job losses, U.S. government figures show. The picture was even clearer in the recession of the early 1990s. Of the 1.2 million positions that disappeared, females accounted for just 22,000 — slightly less than 2 percent.

Nor can this be explained by the fact that there were fewer women working. Even in the early 1990s women accounted for 47 percent of the workforce.

The reason that men are more sensitive — to recessions at least — is that they are overrepresented in highly cyclical sectors. Nine out of 10 workers in construction, and seven out of 10 in manufacturing, are male. These sectors generally take the biggest tumble when the economy declines. Women, meanwhile, dominate the most cosseted portions of the economy: healthcare, education and government.

Despite this, the current downturn has been no cakewalk for women. While women have been better at clinging onto their jobs, they have not done so well holding onto their salaries. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women in full-time work saw their annual earnings fall at twice the pace of men in the early stages of the recession — losing almost 2 percent last year.

The news actually gets worse for women. Most measures of employment and salary suggest the gender revolution has stalled. The gulf between male and female salaries, which narrowed dramatically in the last 25 years, has started to widen again.

In 2005 women on average earned 81 percent as much as men. By the end of last year, this was slipping back to 79.9 percent. Much of this is accounted for by shorter working hours and choice of industry.

Even taking this into account, however, academics like Shelley Correll at Stanford University have shown that there is still a “motherhood penalty” built into the workforce. Correll calculates that mothers who work just as hard as male counterparts earn about 5 percent less per child.

Progress on the desegregation of the workforce and attitudes to gender roles have not advanced since the mid-1990s. This is despite the fact that women are now outpacing men academically — earning 58 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 60 percent of master’s.

Since superior academic performance doesn’t seem to be narrowing the gap, we need a renewed drive by government and companies to root out discrimination and create a more family-friendly work place. Although the United States has excellent anti-discrimination laws, enforcement is woefully underfunded.

Another necessary but more expensive step would be greater provision of childcare. Increasing the length of the school day, lowering the starting age and reducing school vacations would all help — as could more generous paternity leave. Larger employers should be encouraged to expand the provision of workplace nurseries — a reliable way of attracting highly skilled mothers.

As the slide in manufacturing and production tails off, male workers can expect some relief. The problems of many women in the workforce are far more ingrained and harder to deal with. Man-cession aside, it’s still a man’s world.


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So the point of the article is…? Best to be a single gal in the workforce – as long as you don’t mind making 20% less than men? I would prefer a commentary to actually have a point, not say the point is there is no point. If I want kabuki, I’ll go to Japan.

Posted by the Shah | Report as abusive

Christopher, it is easy to pick off journalists from a high horse, but you lead with the chin:

‘Nor have women been making great breakthroughs’ – I won’t rant and rave, but do you know that the first person to observe a neutron star was Jocelyn Bell ? Marie Curie ?

‘This is despite the fact that women are now outpacing men academically — earning 58 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 60 percent of master’s’ – what about ‘o-levels’, diplomas, in-house courses, honours degrees and PHD’s ?

If woman ran government, to say there would have been more peace, according to a stab at it via ‘Moya’ in Felix the Cat Salmon’s blog today, would be ‘reverse’ sexism…Sounds like reverse psychology to me.

I hate giving artists free advertising, but maybe we should all capitulate and listen to a chubby lady that traded the US for the UK: The Gossip, track 2: ‘Heavy Cross’. The back cover is not for the faint hearted, but that track made my organs finally drop out.

Posted by Gaspard | Report as abusive

I sincerely hope your suggestion of a longer school day, lowering the starting age and reducing school vacations gets absolutely no-where. What kind of world would that produce? Leave the kids to be kids, it would make more sense to suggest greater security and social spending to enable kids to be kids. I’m grateful I was born at a time and a place where I could run free, mind you I’m also grateful that I was born at a time where you could out-run a police car on a 500cc motorbike and there wasn’t any cctv! (while I was young and wild… ish).
You might find technology, corporate conglomeration and the export of jobs also has a sizable impact on the current employment situation.

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

It sure is a great idea to encourage mothers to be even more absent from their children. That’s what I like about forward-thinking commentary like this… always coming up with brilliant suggestions to better our society.

Posted by Russ in PA | Report as abusive

The point of the article was, as I read it, that we should step back from being absorbed in the “man-cession” spin being generated and look at the greater picture of gender inequality in the work force.

Where I work, this is how we handle complaints: when you complain, you have to offer at least two solutions to the problem first. You may not be an expert in solving the problem, but the point is that you put thought into it.

So you don’t like his solutions. So what? Instead of complaining and hoping someone else will solve the problem the way you like it, what can you bring to the table?

Posted by shawn | Report as abusive

Shah, the point is that the Great Recession being extra hard on men (mancession) is just a myth. The author states enough fact to back that up. The rest of the stuff his just his opinion and how he would like to change things.

Posted by blackbean | Report as abusive

Thanks! (for this article: as few days back I addressed this same problem here)
Atleast some one wrote this article and acknowledge that though not great but to significant extent man is more weaker sex. Can any one point at other fundamental problems we face(family-cession, value-cession).

Posted by mnk | Report as abusive

[…] Myth of the Man-cession(Reuters) Christopher Swann finds the gender effect has been […]

Posted by Daily Digest for October 7 » New Deal 2.0 | Report as abusive

You admit that the gap in pay is due mainly to the occupations chosen, then use the useless statistic of generic “bachelor’s degrees earned.”

A bachelor’s degree is quite worthless (in terms of pay rate) unless it was earned in a field where it earns you a job earning more money.

For example, look at the percentage of degrees in engineering given to men vs. women.

But I will digress because engineering jobs are available even with the downturn. But don’t blame the people who didn’t bother to pay attention in high school and chose to get a degree in tourism and leisure managment. (I didn’t make that up.)

Posted by Scott | Report as abusive

I don’t know. Please forgive me for saying this, but I think you’re still a little too young to see the big picture here. Women have to WANT to “play the game.” And sometimes it’s just not worth it, because it can be pretty meaningless. Especially when you have to deal with those oversized egos (male and female) at the top of an organization. But those women who are willing to play appear to do pretty well.

When I feel like a rat running circles inside a wheel, while others are relaxing and actually enjoying life — I have to wonder if it’s worth it.

In reference to cyclical industries being male-dominated, I’d like to suggest that male-dominated industries are cyclical because they are male-dominated. It’s all about pacing yourself.

Posted by NoName | Report as abusive

Ouch! Do you have children? The way to allow them to develop into productive, caring members of society is not to have them raised by teachers and daycare workers. Familial connection makes for self-knowledge, strong core, and concern for others. Government should create employment, education, healthcare, economic, tax policy that promotes family well-being. Culturally, we should care about all members of society and the first exposure to that caring and trust is found in a solid, healthy parent-child relationship.

Posted by Catcher | Report as abusive

Well I’m sure that this will stir things up but it has to be said: In my 10+ years as a manager in industries ranging from fine-dining restaurants to IT and corporate offices I’ve seen that women simply don’t work as much or as hard as their male coworkers. This has long been an unspoken fact that most people are afraid to admit.

Currently I work in an office where women greatly outnumber men and I’ve seen that almost 40% of their workday is spent shopping online, gossiping,talking with co-workers or other non-work activities. I think the difference of pay reflects that. I will say that of the women that are the worst culprits most are attractive. It seems that good looking women are given more leeway in that they are more frequently late, leave early more often and contribute less. Of the few women that I’ve worked with that are diligent and hard workers most are unattractive and homely. My assumption is that when you’re not so nice to look at, you strive to impress with your deeds as opposed to attractive people that simply rely on thier looks in leiu of a good personality or hard work.
I think that in our haste to make things equal we have ended up coddling people by lowering our standards and creating an environment where it’s “OK” to work less simply because of a past ‘disadvantaged’ status. The same applies to many aspects of race-relations (affirmative action anyone?. We’re so afraid of calling out bad behavior that we’ve created a society of people completely comfortable with blaming others for thier lack of success instead of placing ownership with the individual. At no point in human history did God or nature intend for the weak to survive or thrive. I forget the source but this statement seems quite apt for our current situation “If you cater to the lowest rungs of humanity then you become a nation of the mediocre”.
We are not as far removed from animals as we’d like to think, and we all know what happens when you feed wild animals instead of letting them act as animals and find food on their own: they begin to rely on you and will eventually starve if you stop feeding them despite the fact that millions of years of evolution have given them the ability to survive in the wild.

I think that in this age of technology we’ve gotten a bit too comfortable and we’re losing the one characteristic that allowed us to survive since the beginning of time: adaptability.

What will we do when we become a nation of people who feel entitled to everything but aren’t willing to work for anything?

Posted by Josh | Report as abusive

Gaspard, the line about “making great breakthroughs” that Chris writes seems to be directed at wages, during the recent recession. I’m sure he is not downplaying women’s contributions.

Posted by lauren | Report as abusive

It’s hard when working men, women and people of other cultures are pitted against one another for lousy jobs that aren’t worth having in the first place.

It takes a real man to say “Take this job and shove it”. Those are the sort of men we need now, more than ever.

Posted by The Bell | Report as abusive

“In 2005 women on average earned 81 percent as much as men. … Much of this is accounted for by shorter working hours and choice of industry.”

Give me time to leave at will, time to take a 3 month break to rear a child, and time to deal with ‘personal issues’ all the while retaining job security and I’ll gladly give you 20 percent of my pay.

Posted by Working Man | Report as abusive

Single moms are dependle workers. Who can we depend on?

Posted by Patricia | Report as abusive

Working Man asserted that much of the 81 percent vs. 100 percent wage *difference* is accounted for by shorter working hours and choice of industry.

But what about the when the number of hours, the type of job, and the industry are all the same? What we need are reliable statistics about full-time earnings by men and women in at least one specific type of job.

How about a study of earnings at one-year and three-year anniversaries in the *same* type of non-supervisory job. Three separate possible target populations: police officers in Seattle, air traffic controllers in Boston, and untenured professors at 4-year colleges in Baltimore.

Posted by hParker | Report as abusive

And people wonder why women wait longer to have children, or don’t have them at all?

If you’re already making 80% of a man’s pay (at full time) and then a 5% reduction per child (likely from passed-over bonuses,etc), then 2 children (the average number) already sets you back to a 70% loss in salary. Add in all the housework, PTA conferences, child care, grocery shopping, and all the other things mums get stuck with(that men traditionally don’t help with) then that’s a raw deal, isn’t it? Who wants to take a 30% or more reduction for twice the work?

It must be nice to be a woman in one of those “socialist” Scandinavian countries who enjoy family-friendly benefits AND a much lower wage gap!

Posted by Jessica | Report as abusive


Your post is right-on. I joined the workforce in the late 1980’s, and work in a very male dominated profession (engineering). During my career I have worked for some of the nation’s largest corporations.

I have consistently observed that women tend not to work as hard as men at the workplace. I’ve noticed that very few women choose to study math and engineering disciplines in college. Those who do tend to want to have the shorter work weeks, more “personal time,” and are not as productive as their male counterparts. As technology advances, they tend not to keep-up their skills. When I was a young engineer in the mid 80’s, perhaps 10% of coworkers around my age were female. I currently work for a very large corporation that places a very high value on diversity, but there are zero Sr. female engineers. All of the females are junior, in their early to mid 20’s.

Your observation that attractive women’s productivity is lower than that of not-so-attractive women is also true of men. I’ve noticed that attractive men, especially tall attractive men occupy lofty positions, many of which they do not merit by training or their accomplishments. I’ve lost track of the number of times I have been in a meeting sitting at a table listening to some male Sr. Manager who does not seem to know what he is talking about, and the more he talks, the more I wonder, “how in the world did this guy even become vice president of whatever?” In every case, the guy is attractive, and when the meeting ends and he stands up, it becomes crystal clear. If only I were about 4 inches taller.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

OMG what an over-rationalized piece of crap. The wage gap and the lay-off gap have the same source: Female aversion to risk. Sometimes risk-aversion is the right play, and sometimes it is not. Additionally, it is much more plausible that the “motherhood penalty” is related to actual lost performance. The alternative presented in your piece presupposes the employer’s ability to discern the number of children in the home. Speaking as a single father, I can attest to a significant drain on productivity in my own career. In fact, I would say that this drain ammounts to the single largest expense associated with raising a child.

Posted by Matt | Report as abusive


As a male who does all the housework, PTA conferences, child care, and grocery shopping with zero help from any female of any kind… Get stuffed!

Posted by Matt | Report as abusive

I believe that women should be able to paid the equal amount of salary as a man with the same education background, degrees, experience etc..I am an African American man who never fills out the race/gender part of an application because I don’t want to be tracked and given a position because of my race. Since it is a choice, I choose not to fill that information out. I do feel that there is a disparity, however it has nothing to do with statistical analysis. It’s called the” entitlement” clause. I feel that a large number of women in the work force have the entitlement bug bad. The feminist movement has given us a generation of women that thirst for power. I have encountered it too many times. Men are represented in society as thugs, lunks, idiots, needing our spouses approval to go to the bathroom. It is taboo to insult women in anyway, or to insinuate anything but divinity regarding their qualities. My point is, the salary-gap, men-cession problem is somewhat exaggerated, but only because modern society does not seem to value good, hard working , honest men over petulant and self-titled bratty girls and women.

Posted by shawn | Report as abusive

[…] recession hurting American males proportionately more than women and other demographic groups. Reuters — The novelty of the man-cession has been overstated. Delve deeper, and men have not been […]

Posted by The “Man-Cession” Denials | Economist Blog | Report as abusive

[…] UPDATE #2: Now we’ve got people calling the man-cession a myth. Christopher Swann […]

Posted by The Macho Man Eats Nachos in His Poncho With The Head Honcho « Around The Sphere | Report as abusive

What a poor article.

Feminism has and is destroying this country. I hope this equality talk is soon done with, because guess what…everyone is not equal! The United States should be a meritocracy not a place where you get resources based on your gender or race. Ridiculous. The welfare state is going to be the end of the west: see California.

Also, why would someone want their kids to be raised by strangers at a day care? If you do not think that seeing after the families’ needs is a big job then you’re horribly wrong. You cannot buy the type of emotional support that a child needs in order to be raised correctly.

The end of the west: feminism, increased low skill immigration, government being run by special interest corporations, the list goes on….

Posted by Victor | Report as abusive

Of course most employers are going to let go the men when it comes to reduction in work force. Do you honestly think that they will let go any of the eye candy?

Posted by i,robert | Report as abusive

Looks like a waste of paper and breath. We have a recession and we need to treat it as such. Stop the high pressure sales pitch that we can spend our way out of this recession. A change in the direction to bring manufacturing back into the country and to tell our children that they may have to use a shovel rather than push a pencil is what is needed. We do not have leadership in either party in Washington because they are too busy getting elected and making eloquent speeches.

Posted by f belz | Report as abusive

[…] Reuters — The novelty of the man-cession has been overstated. Delve deeper, and men have not been doing so badly by historic standards. […]

Posted by The Man-cession Is Real and Historic « The Enterprise Blog | Report as abusive