Female executives have begun to achieve equality with men in at least one critical area: unemployment.

As the economy slows down and service industries begin to shrink -- especially in the financial industries -- it's beginning to take female executives almost as long to find new jobs as it does their male counterparts, according to a new survey by New York-based Drake Beam Morin Inc., one of the nation's largest firms specializing in helping out-of-work people find jobs.

According to the survey, the average female executive took 6.4 months to find a new job, an increase of 21 percent over the previous year.

"Although this time period is better than that of men {it took them 6.8 months to land a new job}, women lost ground in this area compared to last year," DBM said in its survey report.

While women may be reaching parity with their male counterparts when it comes to unemployment, they did little to close the salary gap when they eventually found work.

The survey showed the salary gap actually widened since a similar study was done last year.

"In 1989, the average male executive compensation was $86,134 vs. $63,339 for women, a 36 percent disparity," the report said. "This year that gap is even wider, with male executives earning $88,796 and women $63,555, a 40 percent difference."

One explanation for the growing disparity is that more women were in general management jobs, which are on the decrease as industries begin to cut back.

The report said that 21 percent of the women surveyed listed "other" when asked to describe their new job category, possibly corroborating what DBM said was a trend toward women going into business for themselves.

Overall, the survey concluded that "today's out-of-work executives can expect a longer job search and flatter salaries."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the job prospects are particularly grim for older executives who find themselves unemployed. Executives 55 years or older took an average of nearly nine months to find a new job, almost a third longer than the national average.

The survey also showed another indication of the decline in the economy. There was little difference between what executives were getting paid in their old jobs and what they were getting in their new jobs ($85,485 vs. $85,538), indicating that companies no longer need to raise pay levels to lure talent.

This is in keeping with the results of other surveys showing that, with an increasing number of businesses either failing or cutting back, workers at all levels are more willing to take jobs they might not have even considered just a year ago.

If anything, the outlook is apt to worsen before it gets better. Unemployment has been creeping up since the beginning of the year and the economy, hit hard by the crisis in the Persian Gulf, is unlikely to pump out many new jobs.

As a result of this tightening in the job market, DBM President Jim Cabrera concluded, "It's cherry-picking time for employers."

He said the shrinkage of service industries and economic belt-tightening have simply made a much tighter job market for unemployed executives.

"It simply takes longer to find new employment in all job functions," Cabrera said.

A further indication of the cherry-picking showed up in the fact that more executives were laid off simply because they couldn't get along with the boss. In a tighter job market, Cabrera said, employers can be more selective in who they want to keep.

There were some bright spots scattered about the bleak findings. According to Cabrera, demand is increasing for highly paid executives who can actually run a company.

The survey also showed that for the third consecutive year, there was an increase in the number of people finding jobs in sales or marketing. DBM concluded this was further evidence of a continued emphasis by employers on jobs that affect the financial bottom line of a company.

The survey showed an 8 percent rise in these types of jobs and a corresponding 8 percent increase in overall compensation.

By contrast, general management jobs dropped by 10 percent along with the 9 percent drop in compensation.