Nancy Hurlbert

(WOMENSENEWS)–Economists and policy analysts have long had to look in a number of places to explain the sometimes puzzling ups and downs in women’s employment patterns.

Now one set of data they use is slated to disappear.

In a plan that has infuriated women’s groups and labor unions, gotten the attention of lawmakers and raised concern among some economists, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has proposed ending the collection of businesses’ payroll data by gender later this year.

On April 18, the bureau sent to the Office of Management and Budget its plan to eliminate the Women Worker Series from the Current Employment Statistics survey, the government’s monthly tally of who’s working where according to payroll data. The Office of Management and Budget will make a final decision after the 30-day comment period ends in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Web site.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics will continue to regularly publish its data about women’s employment from another source, the Current Population Survey. Critics, however, consider this information less accurate because it surveys households, not businesses. They also say the 60,000 sample is much smaller than that of the Current Employment Statistics Survey, which counts the number of workers in 400,000 job sites across the country.

The plan is moving forward in the face of criticism from groups ranging from Business and Professional Women-USA and the AFL-CIO to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Organization for Women and the National Council of Women’s Organizations, a coalition of women’s groups representing about 10 million members.

“With a gender breakdown, the payroll survey is capable of painting a reliable picture of where women are working across industries and business cycles,” Business and Professional Women-USA President Nancy Hurlbert wrote in the Washington-based group’s comments to the bureau, according to the group’s Web site. “Without a gender breakdown, that picture becomes far more difficult to obtain.”

Such comments were part of a deluge of about 5,000 sent to the Bureau of Labor Statistics early this year, says economist Patricia Getz, division chief for the survey at the Labor Department’s bureau in Washington, D.C. Most opposed the change, she says.

A week after the plan went to the Office of Management and Budget, women’s groups were still developing a strategy about how to reiterate their objections, several of those opposed to the change said.

Larger Effort to Modernize Survey

The bureau is proposing the change as part of a larger effort to modernize the Current Employment Statistics survey.

While valued for its timeliness–its tally of workers by industry is published within weeks of its collection–the survey’s emphasis on the much-reduced manufacturing and production industries is widely recognized as outdated. The re-vamped survey will better reflect the economy’s shift into service sectors. Eliminating the gender identification will also boost response to the survey by making it easier to complete, since companies do not necessarily store data by gender, economist Getz says.

Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently used data from the Women Worker Series to look at women’s and men’s cycles of unemployment and re-employment during recessions and recoveries back to 1970.

They found that while women had larger and more persistent job losses than men in some recessions, they seemed to do better than men in others, according to a paper to be published by the Federal Reserve Bank later this year. Economists hope to figure out explanations in future research, according to the paper.

The survey’s longevity is important because recessions are rare and alternate information is less accurate, less timely and lacks the same historical reach, Joseph Tracy, executive vice president and director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, wrote in comments to the bureau.

In urging the Bureau of Labor Statistics to continue collecting the data, Tracy said that an apparent lack of interest in the data cited by the bureau may simply reflect its lack of visibility and accessibility.

“Rather than discontinue an informative series with such a long history, we suggest that the BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics] consider highlighting its existence among the community of data users and issuing a periodic release,” Tracy wrote to the bureau earlier this year.

Limitations of Data Cited

Economists at the bureau sought to assuage fears about losing data. They said that while the data offer a raw count of male and female workers by industrial sector they did not provide important details. For example, the survey’s tally of the number of women working in information technology does not show their wages or whether they are computer engineers or sales managers.

“I think there’s a fear of losing information on women workers and occupations, but there is more robust information available elsewhere,” says economist Patricia Getz, division chief for the survey at the Labor Department’s bureau in Washington, D.C.

“All we’ve been able to provide is a count of employees by industries and it doesn’t have many characteristics that would tell you what kind of jobs women have in those industries.”

But women’s groups and some lawmakers and economists say the sheer size of the survey and the hard facts it conveys about company payrolls provide a vital view of women’s employment.

Household Survey Can Underestimate

Moreover, the household survey, say some analysts, can underestimate women’s true work-force participation.

When an interviewer, for instance, asks if a household member is “unemployed,” that will be defined only as someone who is “actively looking for work.” A woman who sees herself as taking a temporary breather from the workplace after being laid off, however, may not define herself that way.

“Women are more likely to say, ‘I’m going to take a break from working and stay home with the kids,'” says Vicky Lovell, a policy analyst at the nonprofit Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C. “But when the economy recovers and the jobs open up again, they go back. You have to check in a number of places to see if you really understand the trends.”

Lovell says that the imperiled data will be an important ongoing tool for deciphering what makes women participate in the work force and what makes them disengage.

Recently, for instance, economists and policy analysts have been studying the data for clues about why women’s labor force participation declined from 2000 to 2002, according to Census data. Lovell says economists don’t know if it’s a lull, or if it’s just a correction after the boom years of the 1990s.

“There’s a lot of speculation and a number of unanswered questions, even though we know a lot of the reasons why women find it difficult to hold down a full-time job and do everything you need to do to raise children and run a household,” says Lovell. “Finding the labor market inflexible and unsupportive is different than saying you don’t like working so you’re not looking for a job.”

The National Organization for Women and others called the bureau’s plans part of a concerted political trend to downgrade and eliminate public data of relevance to girls and women.

A year ago, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research called attention to the issue in a report that described “a disturbing pattern of vital information important to women and girls’ lives disappearing from federal government Web sites.”

The report also cited the government’s reluctance to “support and sustain offices dedicated to addressing the specific needs of women and the government’s willingness to undervalue and tamper with key research affecting women’s lives.”

Getz says the proposal came from economists and others who work on the survey within the bureau. “No one outside the BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics] came and asked us to change it,” she said.

Marie Tessier is a freelance journalist who writes about national and international affairs.

For more information:

Bureau of Labor Statistics
Planned Changes to the Current Employment Survey:

Women in the Labor Force: A Databook

Institute for Women’s Policy Research:

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