Women are catching up with men in the race for jobs.
After trailing men through most of the jobs recovery since 2010, women this year are keeping pace and their unemployment rate has fallen far more rapidly.
The Labor Department said Friday that the economy added 175,000 jobs in May, with nearly half going to women. And while the unemployment rate for men 16 and over rose to 7.9% from 7.7%, the jobless rate for women fell to 7.1% from 7.3%.
The strides made by women are even more dramatic for all of 2013. This year, men have gained 475,000 jobs and women a nearly identical 471,000. That's impressive because women make up only 47% of all employed Americans. Since December, their unemployment rate - which is calculated from a different survey than the job totals - has tumbled from 7.8%. The 7.9% male rate hasn't budged.
"We have seen the recovery picking up steam for women," says Joan Entmacher, vice president of the National Women's Law Center.
The trend could mark a new chapter in the labor recovery. From February 2010, when the job market hit bottom, until December 2012, men gained 3.5 million jobs and women only 1.8 million.
That's largely because men were hit much harder than women by the loss of more than 4 million manufacturing and construction jobs during the 2007-09 recession. Men then benefited as those industries recouped more than 800,000 jobs over the past three years.
At the same time, women were disproportionately hurt by the loss of 415,000 local government jobs from 2010 through 2012, including many administrative and teaching positions.
The male advantage began to shrink last year, with women accounting for 45% of the 2.2 million jobs added. Women hold a large share of jobs in industries that have led the recovery, including health care, temporary workers, restaurants and retail. Women, for example, account for nearly all of the 93,000 retail jobs added this year.
Also, local governments have finally started to add jobs after years of layoffs.
Meanwhile, the male-dominated manufacturing industry has shed jobs the past two months and factory employment has been flat in 2013 amid a eurozone recession and U.S. defense cutbacks. Federal deficit-cutting, in fact, is having an outsized effect on men as the U.S. Postal Service and the defense industry trim payrolls.
The housing rebound is boosting the male-populated construction industry. "But it's not roaring back" because commercial and government building remain sluggish, says Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics.
Yet while women are catching up, many of their gains are in low-wage occupations, such as department store cashiers and waitresses, Entmacher says. Many laid-off teachers, for example, have been forced to take jobs in the fast-food industry, she says.
Nearly half of the job growth for women this year has been in low-wage positions, vs. 23% of jobs gained by men, according to the women's law center.
"What we'd like to see is better jobs at more pay," Entmacher says.
By Paul Davidson