WASHINGTON - The slowly recovering U.S. job market has helped women rebound faster than men: They've now regained all the jobs they lost to the Great Recession. Men are still 2.1 million jobs short.
And the gender gap is expected to persist until the job market is much healthier.
To understand why, consider the kinds of jobs that are, and aren't, being added.
Lower-wage industries, like retail, education, restaurants and hotels, have been hiring the fastest. Women are predominant in those areas. Men, by contrast, dominate sectors like construction and manufacturing, which have yet to recover millions of jobs lost in the recession.
"It's a segregated labor market, and men and women do work in different industries, and even in different areas within industries," says Heidi Hartmann, an economist and president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
Economists have long known that the recession hit men the hardest. "A man-cession," some have called it. Or a "she-covery."
The August jobs report issued last week spotlighted the divergence:
The unemployment rate for women was 6.8 percent -- nearly a full percentage point less than the 7.7 percent rate for men.
All told, 68 million women said they were employed last month. That topped the 67.97 million who had jobs when the recession began in December 2007, the government says.
Among men, 76.2 million were employed last month. That was down from 78.3 million in December 2007.
Since the recession officially ended in June 2009, education and health services have helped drive job growth: That sector added nearly 1.6 million jobs, the second-most of any category. And women gained nearly 1.1 million of them.
While that category includes some good-paying jobs such as nurses and physical therapists, many are lower-paying positions such as home health care aides.
Women also make up more than half of the workforce in hotels and restaurants, which has produced the third-largest job gain of any industry.
Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, says the lackluster economy has limited the growth of good jobs -- the kind traditionally held by men. Low-paying jobs, more typically held by women, have been growing instead.
The trend likely won't reverse, she says, until economic growth picks up and unemployment falls significantly below August's 7.2 percent. That might be two years away, Shierholz says.
"It's not like women are fine now," Shierholz says. "Women have been disproportionately in lower-quality jobs."
Even though women's employment has recovered faster than men's, there are still more men with jobs than women. And more men than women have found work since the recession ended. Yet men still haven't recovered all their losses because the cuts were so deep in sectors such as manufacturing and construction.
"We hope, and expect, that men's employment will come back to normal" as the economy strengthens, Hartmann says.
Female workers have regained their job losses in the recession even though they were hit hard by government budget cuts, especially by states and localities. Since the end of 2007, state and local governments have cut 689,000 jobs. In a report last year, the liberal Economic Policy Institute calculated that women accounted for 70 percent of those lost jobs.
Despite their overall job gains, the percentage of women working or seeking work has been dropping, just as for men. The so-called labor force participation rate for women -- the percentage either working or looking for work -- was 57.3 last month. That was down from 59.4 percent in December 2007.
For men, the participation rate has dropped to 69.5 percent from 73.1 percent.
Both men and women have been retiring, enrolling in school, registering for Social Security disability payments and just giving up on a weak job market.
Not all the jobs women have regained are in lower-wage areas. They've also recovered jobs in professional and business services, a grab-bag category that includes both higher and lower-paying jobs, from architects and engineers to information technology workers and temp workers.