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Women Lost Jobs in Retail Last Year. Men Didn’t.

A new study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) found that despite overall job losses in the retail industry last year, men as a group actually gained jobs.
retail industry
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On the other hand, women lost jobs in retail by the thousands. What’s going on here?

Disproportionate Changes

Researchers used employment report data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for this study. They found that over the course of the previous year (October 2016 – October 2017) women lost 160,300 jobs in retail. Men, however, gained 106,000 jobs during this same period.

Nearly all of women’s job losses occurred in the “general merchandizing” sector of the retail market. Nearly all of the gains for men were also in general merchandizing — they gained 87,800 jobs in this sector during that time.

Women accounted for 64 percent of workers in general merchandizing in October of 2016. But, they were 60.4 percent of the job holders in this sector of the retail market by October of 2017.

Wage Disparity

It easy enough to attribute the decline in retail jobs overall to increases in alternative ways of shopping, such as ecommerce. Online shopping has become more popular than shopping in stores. This can help us begin to understand why women lost jobs in retail last year while men gained them. It comes down to wage disparity in the industry.

Men tend to sell big-ticket items, like furniture and cars. Women tend to work retail jobs that focus on lower-cost items, like clothing or cosmetics, for example. Since folks are more likely to shop for those kinds of good online, there has been a decline in those jobs.

It’s not that women don’t want to work other types of merchandizing jobs, which typically pay higher wages. They just aren’t hired for them at the same rate as men.

“Men make more in retail just the way they make more in almost every industry and every occupation,” Heidi Hartmann, the president of IWPR and one of the authors of the study, told NPR. “But you know women have tried for years to get these jobs. Sears actually won a case in the ’70s saying that it wasn’t enough to just show a statistical disparity that there weren’t women in the jobs. That wasn’t enough. The judge ruled that the plaintiffs hadn’t shown intention that Sears didn’t [hire women in those jobs].”

'Men make more in retail just the way they make more in almost every industry and every occupation.' - Heidi Hartmann, president of IWPRClick To Tweet

Retail and Automation

Another major issue impacting retail industry jobs is automation. President Trump has said that retaining and restoring jobs in manufacturing and coal are a top priority. But, these aren’t the only industries that will be impacted by the robots.

Retail work is especially vulnerable to automation. A study found that up to 47 percent of retail workers could be replaced by machines over the course of the next 10 years. There are more people working in retail than in manufacturing and mining combined, so shouldn’t we be hearing about saving these jobs, too? It’s hard not to feel as though more traditionally masculine jobs are being protected in a different way than jobs that are more often done by women.

We should question whether some paychecks really are more important than others. In 2018, many women are responsible for caring for themselves and their families financially. As the job market continues to shift, we ought to be more mindful about how economic and technological changes are impacting different groups of workers.

For more on the gender pay gap, read PayScale’s report, What Is the Gender Pay Gap?

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