BUSINESS
12/21/2010 05:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Women Face Better Employment Prospects Than Men, Will Drive Recovery, Report Says

The economic recovery will be led by women, who are, on the whole, better educated than men and more likely to find employment in today's anemic job market, according to a new report.

Women, whose employment relative to men's is at a historic high, will increasingly drive consumer spending, according to a new Bank of America Merrill Lynch report. As the economic landscape shifts, and employers demand more highly educated workers, women will find themselves in stronger financial shape than men, equipped with the buying power to spur and sustain economic growth, the report predicts.

The Great Recession put a higher proportion of men out of work than women, and, if the report's authors are to be believed, it laid the foundation for a new gender dynamic in the American workforce. The construction and manufacturing industries, which account for about half of the nation's job losses, are dominated by men. Last month, the male unemployment rate was 10.6 percent, compared to 8.9 percent for women.

The jobs that do exist in large numbers are concentrated in industries dominated by women, including nursing and retail, the report says. If men want work, they'll have to be willing to explore new careers.

"It will require a generational shift and a shift in attutides about what is a traditional male versus female job," said Ethan Harris, the Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist who co-authored the report with economist Neil Dutta. "For men to catch up, they will have to accept that a healthcare job is a good job."

As a crowded job market has pushed employers to put a premium on higher education, women, who are statistically more likely to graduate from college, have an upper hand. "The economy is going to reward people with more education," Harris said. "There's a retooling of the male workforce that needs to take place."

Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity. As women have more secure income, the report says, they will increasingly spend the dollars that could drive an economic recovery.

But other economists are skeptical. In the highest paying jobs, for example, men continue to dominate. Female income, as the report acknowledges, is still about two-thirds that of men.

Job growth tends to be in low-paying sectors, said Mark Blyth, a political economy professor at Brown. Even if more women are employed than men, it doesn't necessarily follow that they'll drive an economic recovery.

"It may be the case that women have a slight advantage over men in terms of college qualifications, but that doesn't mean everybody's going to be working for JPMorgan," Blyth said. "If there's going to be more women employed in health care -- and historically they get paid less than men -- don't hold your breath for heart-pumping consumer spending."

The labor market, further, might not undergo as fundamental a shift as the report predicts. Construction and manufacturing jobs are cyclical, meaning they're tied to economic booms and busts. As the economy recovers, the status quo might well be restored.

Since the economy started adding jobs in December 2009, women have gained 45,000 jobs. Men, meanwhile, have gained 906,000.

"Men saw disproportionate job loss, so it makes sense they would have disporportionate gain," said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. "The jobs that come back tend to look like the ones that were lost."

As the male unemployment rate has dropped 0.6 percentage points since November 2009, the female unemployment rate has increased 0.3 percentage points.

The income gap, Shierholz added, is "still pretty intense."