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Why are women losing retail jobs while men are gaining them?

Where are all the women in retail? (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

A surge of Americans got back to work this year, driving the jobless rate to a 17-year low — but the “roaring” economy, as President Trump calls it, appears to have disproportionately benefited men.

A new analysis of government data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals a surprising disparity: The retail industry, which shed the most jobs last year (54,300), seemed to push women out while offering more opportunities to men.

Between October 2016 and October 2017, women who worked in the country’s stores lost 160,300 jobs, while 106,000 men found new work in the field, the analysis from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found.

“We’ve seen many news reports of the decline in retail jobs, but few have noted that the picture in retail is much different for women and men,” researchers at the Washington think tank wrote.

Over the past year, they added, “women’s share of all retail trade jobs fell from 50.4 to 49.6 percent.”

Economist Heidi Hartmann, president of the IWPR, said it’s too soon to tell what sparked this shift.

Her theory: As hiring ramped up, so did spending on big-ticket items, including furniture and appliances — and men tend to dominate those sales roles, which have historically come with higher commission payments. They also offer more job security.

“There’s basically sex segregation within the retail industry,” she said. “Women have tried very hard to get into jobs like that.”

Hartmann pointed to a 1979 sex-discrimination lawsuit against Sears, in which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission argued the retailer regularly overlooked women for similar high-commission jobs. Although 61 percent of applicants for such roles were female, just 35 percent of the jobs went to women, the government lawyers argued.

The EEOC ultimately lost the case. (The judge ruled that employment data wasn’t enough to prove discrimination.)

As of today, the BLS doesn’t break down employment in commission jobs by gender, and Sears declined to release its current workforce data.

Hartmann also theorized that women in retail could be leaving the industry for better-paying jobs in health care, one of the fastest-growing fields. Demand has soared for hospital workers and physician assistants, for example, and economists say more employers are willing to provide on-the-job training.

A whopping 73 percent of cashiers, meanwhile, are women, and those jobs have been identified as among the first to fade away with the rise of automation.

Regardless, she said, lawmakers should pay attention to retail workers as much as they do those in manufacturing.

“A lot of communities have malls, and people depend on those jobs,” she said. “Families depend on those jobs.”

Men saw more job growth across the broader economy, too. (They also still hold a slight majority in the U.S. labor force.)

Since the 2016 election, men in the United States have gained approximately 1.1 million jobs, with women stepping into 985,000 new positions, according to data from the BLS.

Retail trade is one of the nation's largest industries, employing about 15.8 million workers in roles that connect people to products. The jobless rate for the sector is significantly higher than the national average (4.6 percent, compared to 4.1 percent), but the future of the field isn't as gloomy as economists predict, some union leaders say.

Chelsea Connor, director of communications at the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store International Union, which represents about 100,000 workers in the United States, said the rise of online shopping hasn’t destroyed careers at brick-and-mortar stores.

“A lot of people are saying retail is dying, but it’s just changing,” she said. “Consumers want to be able to touch and feel products before they buy them.”

Connor said she hasn’t seen any gender gaps in layoffs among her members, who work at Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Zara and other stores. On average, sales representatives of both genders make an average of $15 to $30 per hour, depending on their experience level and skill on the sales floor.

Men, however, tend to work more often in packing and shipping roles, she said. In a world where people shop online as often as they take out the trash, that could account for the uneven employment bump.

“It’s possible the BLS numbers reflect that” — men in different types of packing and delivery roles, Connor said. “But for us, it’s never been about men vs. women in hiring.”

Joseph Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM US LLP, an international consulting firm, agreed the government numbers don't necessarily mean female workers' fortunes are worsening. Women now outpace men in college enrollment, he said, so they might be leaving some retail jobs to pursue more lucrative options.

“They’re going to be cycling into higher paying jobs,” he said. “They’re going to be going into management.”

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