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Partisan Fight For Female Vote Uses Monthly Jobs Report As Weapon

With the possibility that women voters might prove decisive in November's presidential election, each major party is obviously looking for opportunities to argue why its policies are better for women and the opposition's worse. The latest came Friday with the release of the March jobless figures.

The report was a surprise on the downside because the economy added far fewer jobs for the month — 121,000 — than economists had forecast even as the jobless rate declined a tenth of a percentage point to 8.2 percent.

The disappointing number reinforced a vexing trend that has shown up in the Labor Department data for months. During the current recovery, women have failed to regain jobs at anywhere near a rate comparable to men.

It's a potential political problem for the president which the GOP would like to exploit. Which helps explain a Friday White House forum on "women and the economy," and the president's appearance at same, to highlight policies meant to eventually improve the economic lot of women. Obama said:

"Right now, no issue is more important than restoring economic security for all our families in the wake of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. And that begins with making sure everyone who wants a job has one."

While the president did talk about the uneven progress on the jobs front, his appearance at the forum allowed him to discuss a range of other policies he hopes will give him stronger appeal to women voters than the likely Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.

His litany included his support for pay equity, highlighted by his signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Act early in his administration and the Affordable Care Act with requirement that the health insurance plans employers offer include contraception coverage with no out-of-pocket costs to employees.

That many of those who want jobs but can't find them are women was seized on by Republican National Committee co-chair Sharon Day who said in a statement:

"President Obama and his fellow Democrats love to say they stand for women, but women can no longer stand the Obama economy. Women deserve better, and in November we will hold him accountable."

The problem women are having finding jobs relative to men is particularly baffling for many economists because it doesn't seem to be simply an issue of a rebound in industries where men traditionally predominate, like construction and manufacturing.

Instead, the phenomenon is being observed within industries with large numbers of workers of both genders.

Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor Washington think tank, said that during the depth of the Great Recession when jobs were being lost at a terrifying rate, December 2007 to February 2010, men lost 69 percent of the jobs while women lost 31 percent of them.

Since then, she said, men got 76 percent of the job gains while women have only gotten 24 percent.

"It is catching people's eyes for sure that men are getting a disproportionate number of jobs," Shierholz said. She was quick to add, however, that it shouldn't be forgotten that men took a bigger hit in terms of job loss during the recession, so much so that it was called a "mancession."

Aparna Mathur, an economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, theorized that there was something of an industry effect at play, with the earliest wave of layoffs hitting sectors with more male workers while layoffs of women lagged behind. Now in the the recovery, the same pattern is at play, she said, with women lagging behind in job gains.

In any event, she said she specific federal policies targeted at women weren't needed. "If we just create the right environment for businesses to start functioning and to start hiring, all of the effects on the women will disappear over time. You will see women being rehired. You will see women getting back into the labor force."

The release of Friday's jobs report, with its continued sobering news about women and jobs, came against a backdrop of what's being called the gender gap.

Issues like the partisan fight over contraception coverage or Planned Parenthood have allowed Democrats to accuse Republicans of a "war on women." Those attacks have, at least according to a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll, helped Obama open an 18-point lead on Romney in 12 swing states.

Republicans accuse Obama of cynically using scare tactics.

"The Obama campaign and the DNC have attempted to deflect how their policies are affecting women by their extreme rhetoric," said Sean Spicer, an RNC spokesman.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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