Do layoffs come in gender waves?

Researcher Teri Fritsma’s documented the widening and then closing of Minnesota’s jobless gender gap over the past year. Her data digging has also raised an interesting question: In some sectors of the economy, do layoffs come in gender waves?

The answer seems to be yes. Why? That’s an open question I’m hoping you can help answer.

Check out this graph from Fritsma’s most recent research.


In those male-dominated industries, male unemployment stayed high and female unemployment relatively low the first four months of 2009. By May they were about equal.

By August, the unemployment rates of men and women had traded places, with women showing significantly higher jobless rates than men in those male-dominated sectors.

Fritsma, a project consultant for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, thinks it can partly be explained by the seasonal nature of those jobs, where demand is higher in the good weather months for the jobs typically worked by men.

She also thought it might be because women held more part-time or clerical jobs in those sectors which took a disproportionate hit. That doesn’t seem to be the case.


She has one other idea on this that’s purely conjecture but pretty intriguing: employers may be trying to balance the job cuts between genders.

“If you’re in a firm and you’ve just laid off a lot of men, you may (subconsciously) try to even the score a little bit,” she says.

“Nothing done consciously…not a backlash or anything like that,” she adds. “But the patterns just can’t be completely explained by any of the usual suspects — industry or occupational employment, seasonality, or part-time work.”

Fritsma cautions those waves of gender unemployment could be an anomaly — statistical noise created by a small sample size.

“What makes me think it’s not just sampling error,” she continues, “the pattern was consistent from February through August.”

She doesn’t have any plans at this point to dig deeper into this data. If she did, she says she’d start by asking employers how they dealt with layoffs in 2009 and whether consciously or not they felt the need to strike a balance on layoffs and gender.

It’s an important discussion, especially in Minnesota where a high percentage of women work and the recession is changing household roles with more women as breadwinners. (Check out today’s MPR Commentary from a man who changed his role from breadwinner to homemaker following a layoff.)

Yet, a congressional report last year concluded the Great Recession “threatens women’s employment more than ever before.”

I’d love to hear from readers on this. Have you seen any evidence at your workplace that layoffs or unemployment runs in gender waves? Are you an employer who’s had to lay off people? What was your experience?

Post something below or contact me directly.

  • I think Dr. Fritsma is quite astute in surmising that this is not just an anomaly. We are at a crossroads right now, and we should begin to expect the unexpected.

  • Paula Vander Hoven

    Dr. Fritsma is making strong contributions to the field of women’s occupations. I applaud her diligence and careful research.