April 2014

The rise in women’s share of nonfarm employment during the 2007–2009 recession: a historical perspective

This article uses data from the Current Employment Statistics survey to examine changes in women’s and men’s employment during the 2007–2009 recession. The article also places these changes in historical context, comparing them with longer term employment trends observed throughout previous economic downturns. The analysis suggests that the resilience of women’s employment during recessions resulted in women’s holding an unprecedented 50 percent of nonfarm jobs during the most recent downturn. Women’s employment has made some notable strides over the past several decades, strides that partly reflect the payroll growth of women in an expanding group of service-providing industries that employ more women than men.

During the most recent recession, which began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009,1 job losses among men outnumbered those among women by 2.6 to 1. Also during this period, women’s employment reached 50.0 percent of total nonfarm employment for the first time since the series began in 1964. This article discusses the long-term trend in the employment share of women and men on nonfarm payrolls. It highlights the sustained growth of women’s employment during previous downturns and contrasts this long-term growth with the female employment experience during the most recent recession, in which women lost more jobs than they did in any of the previous downturns. The article also examines the diverging trends of job losses between women and men working in industries that were most and least affected by recent recessions and analyzes employment dynamics in the most recent recession and postrecessionary period. Data presented in the article are based on estimates from the Current Employment Statistics (CES) survey.

Long-term expansion of women’s employment

The CES payroll survey first began to produce employment estimates of women for all industry sectors in January 1964, at which point women held 31.7 percent of total nonfarm jobs.2 Women’s employment has continued to expand nonfarm payrolls over the past half century and accounted for an unprecedented 50.0 percent of all payroll jobs in the last month of the most recent recession. The women’s share of payroll jobs held at that level for 11 consecutive months and then edged down; as of December 2013, however, that share was still high, at 49.5 percent.

Over the past 49 years, women’s employment has largely expanded relative to men’s employment. Between 1964 and 1991, the share of women’s employment rose steadily, as women’s employment rose faster than men’s. (See figure 1.) That share leveled off soon after the 1990–1991 recession, and, except for periods of recession when the women’s share of employment saw gains, the rates of job growth for both genders have been similar since then. After reaching a recent low in June 2006, the women’s share of employment rose throughout the 2007–2009 recession and has edged lower since March 2010.

As shown in table 1, the share of women’s employment has expanded in each of the past seven recessions, as men have historically experienced the majority of net job losses and women’s employment has tended to fluctuate less in the business cycle. The table presents annualized rates of change, which remove the effect of the varying lengths of recessions and represent a measure that is comparable across scales. Annualized rates also more clearly show the continued resilience of women’s employment to sustained job losses during downturns.

Table 1. Annualized rates of employment change, seasonally adjusted, previous seven recessions, 1969–2009
Dates of recessionAnnualized rates of change
Total nonfarm employmentWomenMenWomen's share of employment

December 1969–November 1970


November 1973–March 1975


January 1980–July 1980


July 1981–November 1982


July 1990–March 1991


March 2001–November 2001




December 2007–June 2009


Note: Beginning and ending months of recessions are determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Employment Statistics for employment data.

The CES survey versus the CPS survey

The Bureau of Labor Statistics produces two monthly employment series that are independently obtained: (1) the estimate of total nonfarm jobs, derived from the CES survey, also called the establishment or payroll survey; and (2) the estimate of total civilian employment, derived from the Current Population Survey (CPS), also called the household survey.3 The two surveys use different definitions of employment, as well as different survey and estimation methods. The data used in this article are from the CES survey, a survey of employers that provides a measure of the number of payroll jobs in nonfarm industries. The CPS is a household survey that provides a measure of employed people ages 16 years and older in the civilian noninstitutional population.


1 Recessions in the United States are identified by the National Bureau of Economic Research, according to which the most recent recession began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009. The previous three recessions were from March 2001 to November 2001, from July 1990 to March 1991, and from July 1981 to November 1982, respectively. For a complete list of business cycle dates, see “U.S. business cycle expansions and contractions” (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, September 20, 2010),

2 The CES program is a monthly survey of about 144,000 nonfarm businesses and government agencies, representing approximately 554,000 individual worksites. The CES program produces employment estimates for all employees and for female employees. In this article, employment estimates for men are calculated as the difference between estimates for all employees and estimates for women. For more information on the survey’s concepts and methodology, see “Technical notes to establishment survey data published in Employment and Earnings” (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 1, 2013), To access CES data, see “Current Employment Statistics—CES (national)” (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 1, 2013), Unless otherwise noted, the CES data used in this article are seasonally adjusted.

3 The labor force data used in this section of the article are from the CPS, a monthly survey of approximately 60,000 households conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The CPS program produces comprehensive data on the labor force, employment, unemployment, and people not in the labor force. Studies based on the CPS cover a broad range of topics, including the nation’s overall labor market situation as well as that of special worker groups, such as minorities, women, foreign-born workers, school-age youth, older workers, the disabled, veterans, contingent workers, and displaced workers. To access CPS data, see

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About the Author

Catherine A. Wood

Catherine A. Wood is an economist in the Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.