A Very Male Recession Men Hit Hardest by Job Losses

The economic crisis is leading to huge job losses but not everyone is equally at risk. The worst affected areas, such as the automobile and construction sectors, are largely male domains. Women, it seems, have simply adapted better to the changing world of work.

The images are repeating themselves these days: Continental workers are demonstrating in France, autoworkers are demanding a rescue plan for Opel in the German city of Rüsselheim, while in New York and London bankers are clearing out their desks. They are the images of a crisis and the faces have one thing in common: They are almost all men.

Shipyard workers demonstrating in Bremerhaven: Men have been especially hard hit by the recession.

Shipyard workers demonstrating in Bremerhaven: Men have been especially hard hit by the recession.

Foto: DDP

As the crisis continues unabated and the collapse of the global economy  pushes up unemployment figures, one thing is becoming clear: The crisis is disproportionately affecting men. Almost 80 percent of the 5.1 million Americans who have lost their jobs in recent months have been men. The US male unemployment figure is now 8.8 percent, while it is still only 7 percent for women.

The same is now happening in Germany where 55 percent of those registered as unemployed are men, and that is only going to increase. Male workers are more adversely affected by the current economic crisis, explained Heinrich Alt of Germany's Federal Employment Agency (BA) on Thursday as he presented the latest unemployment figures. The numbers speak volumes: While the unemployment rate for men in April increased by 12.4 percent compared to the same month last year, it actually decreased by 2.8 percent for women. More concretely: While almost 218,000 men lost their jobs, 46,939 women actually found one.

Industrial Sector Remains 'Male Domain'

"That is not really all that surprising, because this economic crisis has been concentrated in the classic industrial sectors," says Christian Dreger, head of Macro Analysis and Forecasting at the Berlin-based German Institute for Economic Research (DIW). The automobile industry in particular, including the businesses that supply the main carmakers, is shedding jobs. "And those are sectors that still employ more men," Dreger says. Women tend to work more in the service sector. "And the crisis has had little or no impact there."

Germany's DGB trade union federation agrees with this assessment. "Job losses at the moment are affecting men in particular because the industrial sectors such as auto making and mechanical engineering have remained male domains," DGB spokeswoman Claudia Falk says. Up to now the introduction of shorter working hours, under a scheme where the government makes up part of the shortfall in pay, has been able to cushion the impact in many big companies. "However, workers at small firms are already losing their jobs," Falk says.

Another factor is that a significantly higher number of men work than women. According to the Federal Employment Agency, male employment is currently 81.6 percent while female employment is only 69.2 percent. Those who work more are more likely, therefore, to lose their job.

In addition it is mostly full-time positions that are being cut -- and many women do not work a full 40-hour week. Around a third of employed women work part-time, while only 5.5 percent of working men are employed on a part-time basis.

That means that women are more likely to work in low-paid jobs. The Federal Employment Agency says that 67.4 percent of those in low-paid jobs are women, who often work as carers in retirement homes, supermarket cashiers, childminders or cleaners. These jobs may not be well paid but they are still required even in times of economic crisis.

'Women Are More Flexible'

However, better-paid women are also doing well, such as those working in traditionally more female spheres like education or health. The major industries like construction, manufacturing or even the financial services industry have always been more vulnerable to economic cycles and therefore suffer when the economy dips.

"Women are also more flexible when it comes to location or type of job and they adapt more quickly," says Falk of the DGB. "If a woman realizes that she hasn't got any more prospects somewhere then she tries to go somewhere else. It's something we have experienced in eastern Germany in the past." Many women from eastern Germany have in recent years left to go to western states, or even emigrated, in pursuit of job opportunities.

"In a society where services are becoming increasingly important, women quite simply have the better jobs," says Hans Bertram, a sociologist at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

Bertram is not at all surprised by the fact that it is men who are worst affected by the crisis. "That was historically always the case, for example when you look at the collapse of the steel and coal industries in the Ruhr industrial region," he says. Unemployment has always been a part of life in an industrialized country, and belongs to the rhythm of industrial society. "As long as someone is young and strong, he can make good money as a construction worker. But once you are 35 and your body won't cooperate any more, there are fewer prospects," Bertram explains.

He thinks it unlikely that, for example, former Opel workers will simply retrain to work in the service sector. "You can't turn a steel worker into a call center agent," he says. The service industry usually requires higher qualifications and these are not easily acquired later on in life, he explains.

"The change will only come with the generations," Bertram says. "Perhaps young men will now more often decide against becoming a mechanic or a construction worker and instead opt to train as a nurse."

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