For the first time in more than 30 years, the jobless rate for men has climbed higher and stayed higher than the jobless rate for women.
In December the unemployment rate was 10.1 percent for men, while it was almost a full percentage point less for women at 9.2 percent. A year before, the rate was 7.6 percent for men and 7.4 percent for women. Because more men than women are searching for work, the actual number of jobless men still exceeds the number of jobless women.
The rates began to cross over in late spring, and that trend has continued, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "The only other time you saw that for a sustained period was in 1947," said BLS economist Deborah Klein. In other recessionary periods, joblessness among women only exceeded joblessness among men slightly and for only a month or two.
The reversal of the customary unemployment relationship among the sexes during the past six months might seem--at first blush--like good news for women.
What it reflects, though, is not that women are doing better than men in the job market but that the recession has savaged the ranks of manufacturing and construction workers--most of whom are male--and has struck much less severely clerical and service jobs, where women predominate.
The harsh reality is that the jobs women manage to keep generally don't pay nearly as well as those that men have lost.
Since the recession began, the jobless rate for men has increased by nearly 75 percent, while joblessness among women is up 37 percent.
"That's not good news for women," said Karen Nussbaum, executive director of Nine-To-Five, a national organization of women office workers, and president of Local 925 of the Service Employees International Union.
"It's an on-going pattern of well-paying manufacturing jobs being eliminated while poor-paying clerical and service jobs are on the increase. That's bad news for the American family," she said.
Pat Bradbury and her husband Kwazi Nkrumah represent both sides of the picture. A medical secretary at John Hopkins University Hospital, Bradbury has kept her job, while Nkrumah, a worker at a factory that makes bricks to line the giant furnaces in steel mills, has been laid off for 14 months.
Bradbury makes approximately $6 an hour, while her husband made approximately $10.50 when he was working. That is close to the general pattern in the economy, in which women earn an average of 59 cents for every dollar earned by men. Bradbury said that her family's experience in the past year has made her acutely aware that women need higher salaries
Bradbury started working full time about two years ago to meet mortgage payments on the Baltimore row house the couple bought and were renovating when Nkrumah lost his job at the Harbison-Walker Refractories Division of Dresser Industries.
Until recently, they were able to get along with the help of unemployment benefits, meeting "the essentials," Bradbury said.
Those checks have stopped, however. Nkrumah said he hopes to get a job selling door to door but, if that fails, he may have to seek help from a United Steelworkers aid program that he and other steelworkers helped set up.
Fully half of the total loss of 2.7 million jobs since July 1981 has been in hard-goods manufacturing--machinery, primary metals, fabricated metals and transportation equipment, Klein pointed out.
The jobless rate in November was 16.5 percent among blue-collar workers, while it was only 7.9 percent among clerical workers.
According to AFL-CIO Research Director Rudy Oswald, programs have been designed in other recessions to create construction and public works jobs, which have absorbed some of the workers thrown out of factory jobs. This is not happening in this recession, he noted.
Unemployment benefits that stretched over a longer period in previous recessions also helped to cushion families whose chief wage earner was unemployed, he said.
Whether the shift to greater unemployment among men is a temporary or a longer-lived phenomenon remains to be seen.
"The industries that have been hardest hit tend to employ more men than women," said Ron Kutscher, assistant commissioner of the BLS. "The question, then, is, with economic recovery, whether the industries come back." If they do, "presumably the old historic pattern would prevail," he said.
Employment in the steel and automobile industries has declined by half a million from previous peaks in the 1970s, he said.
How many of those workers are recalled when recovery comes is a question complicated by the steady spread of automation and by the depth of the recession, which has caused a much larger number of plant closings and bankruptcies than any other recession, Oswald said.
"A number of factors will intertwine that may create a much higher male unemployment rate, and that will have severe deleterious effects on family earnings," said Oswald. It also will create severe strains on families, he added.
Nkrumah worked as a dip-tank operator, mixing chemicals in a tank in which bricks were immersed. The family moved from Washington to Baltimore because the job outlook there seemed better five years ago.
Although some workers have been recalled to their jobs at the brick refractory recently, Nkrumah is pessimistic about his chances. "I don't think the chances are good, and if I do get recalled, I don't think it will be stable, unless our plant gets more orders, because some of the other plants have closed," he said. Another refractory a short distance from the plant where he works closed permanently about a month ago, he said.
The Christmas tree is still up at the couple's house, and their two children, Dziko and Sadika, bounce cheerfully around the living room. Nkrumah said that since he was laid off, he has worked on programs to benefit the jobless, lobbying the Maryland General Assembly and keeping busy in other ways that have helped protect him and his family from some of the misery that often accompanies joblessness.
The future remains a wide-open question. "Before, I always felt there was time to make a decision about the type of field I was going to go into," he said. When he was working, he thought about going back to school to add to the courses he has taken, an option he still would like to pursue.
"Making as much money as I was, I felt that, even if I couldn't get a student loan, I could pay my own way," he said. "I'm not really sure how it's going to work out, but at least I'm involved in an effort to do something about it."
"I'm going to have to find some other means of survival," said Nkrumah. "I'm thinking now that maybe I should get into clerical work, because it is secure."