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Unemployed women are more likely to quit looking for work than to find it

After the job fair, will this guy be more likely to remain in the labor force than this woman?
After the job fair, will this guy be more likely to remain in the labor force than this woman?
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The jobless rate keeps falling, but that good news keeps coming with a big caveat: a shrinking labor force. Because the unemployment rate only counts people in the labor force — that is, it counts people actively looking for a job as a percent of all people either working or looking for work — it means when people stop looking for work it can deceptively pull the jobless rate down.

Economists continually fuss over exactly what is shrinking the labor force — retirement, for example, or a job market that discourages people into giving up the job search — but one thing appears clear: unemployed women are more likely to leave the labor force than men right now, according to charts form a new report from Wells Fargo Securities. Here's a look at women's dropping-out-versus-getting-a-job pattern over the last two decades:

women workforce

Source: Wells Fargo Securities

And here's what the same time period looks like for men.

men workforce

Source: Wells Fargo Securities

As the charts show, around 27 percent of women are leaving unemployment to drop out of the labor force, compared to the nearly 20 percent that move from unemployed to employed. Compare that to men, for whom the figure is around 23.5 percent in both cases.

At least when it comes to the indicators in these charts, it doesn't appear that the recession fundamentally changed anything big for one gender more so than the other. Rather, it's more that women were always more likely to leave the labor force than men — notice how the share of jobless women leaving the labor force was in the past always roughly equal to the share finding work, while jobless men have historically been way more likely to find work than leave the labor force. Now, an ugly labor market has made things worse for everyone: men now have roughly equal chances of finding a job or leaving, while women are more likely to give up than to find a job.

Why are women so disproportionately likely to quit? Childbearing is one obvious reason, but layered on top of that is the fact that women tend to earn less than men. Put a woman and a (generally higher-earning) man into a household together, maybe throw in a kid, and suddenly it's less urgent for the lower-paid person to get a job.

Women "remain significantly more likely to leave the labor force if unemployed," the report's authors write. "Unemployed women have traditionally had a higher propensity to leave the labor force than their male counterparts. Their historical role as the secondary breadwinner and other family responsibilities likely alter the urgency at which unemployed women seek employment (as well as overall participation rates)."

Still, there's one more subtle way in which things are worse for men: the share of men who leave the labor force altogether has gone up markedly since 1991. Meanwhile, for women it has held more steady.