This post, originally dated April 24th, is subject to revision once the BLS corrects its data series on the employment of women. See my updated post.
Last year President Obama told NBC’s Ann Curry “a lot of businesses have learned to become a lot more efficient with a lot fewer workers.” The President gave examples of airport kiosks and ATM machines as technological changes that lowered the demand for certain types of clerical and sales jobs. The President could have added that many of these jobs were previously held by women and are unlikely to return even after the economy recovers. That may be one reason why the unemployment rate for women has increased from 7.0% to 8.1%, while it has fallen by 0.3% for men since January 2009.
Although economics textbooks often describe technological change that replaces factory workers (and jobs traditionally held by men) more recent advances in information technology have reduced the demand for some clerical and sales jobs traditionally held by women. There may be no better example of this phenomenon than the United States Postal Service where more than one in three women lost their jobs in the past three years. The number of USPS employees has fallen by 116,500 (15.6%) in the past three years. Nearly all (more than 96%) of the job losses have been due to a decrease in the number of jobs held by women. The following chart illustrates the average employment by gender and calendar year, for the past five years, at the USPS.
Women’s employment declined by 112,300 while men’s employment dropped by 4,200 from 2008 to 2011.
The next chart illustrates the fraction of USPS jobs held by women in each of the last five calendar years.
The fraction of USPS jobs held by women peaked in 2007 but has now fallen below one third for the first time since 1980.
The information technology revolution, and the recession, did not just lower demand for post office employees; over the past three years employment at bookstores fell by more than 30% and in the courier and messenger industry by almost 9%.
The dramatic change at the United States Postal Service since 2009 is but one example of how advances in information technology can permanently reduce the demand for some clerical and sales positions traditionally held by women. Although polls indicate that President Obama enjoys a comfortable lead over Mitt Romney among women that may well depend on what happens to the gender gap in job creation between now and November. As more Americans use the internet to communicate, shop, gather information, and find entertainment it is likely that employment will continue to decline at many retailers and service providers even if the economy strengthens.