WASHINGTON — It's almost 6 p.m. on a Friday and the tables near the bar at The Hamilton in downtown Washington are getting crowded. That means waitress Victoria Honard is busy.
Honard, 22, who graduated from Syracuse University in May, works about 25 hours a week at the restaurant while looking for a job related to public policy. She moved to Washington four days after graduation with the hope of finding a position at a think tank or policy-related organization, she said, and has applied to about 20 prospective employers.
"The response has been minimal," said Honard, whose degree focused on education, health and human services. "There are two ways of looking at it. I could be extremely frustrated and be bitter, or I can make the most of it, and I'm trying to take the latter approach."
Unemployment data appear to reflect big advances for women. The jobless rate in August for females 20 years and older was 6.3 percent, the lowest since December 2008, compared with 7.1 percent for men. As recently as January, the rate was 7.3 percent for both genders, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The downside is that the gains have been largely in such lower-paying jobs as waitress, in-home health care, food preparation and housekeeping. About 60 percent of the increase in employment for women from 2009 to 2012 was in jobs that pay less than $10.10 an hour, compared with 20 percent for men, according to a study by the National Women's Law Center using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The numbers expose a soft spot in an economic recovery that has reduced the overall unemployment rate to 7.3 percent from 10 percent in October 2009. Quality of jobs is an increasing concern for U.S. policy makers and economists since it affects the level of incomes and wage disparities.
Of the 125,000 jobs women gained last month, 54,000 were in retail, leisure and hospitality, with 24,000 in professional and business services. Many of those are for 34 hours or less a week.
Food services and drinking places have added 354,000 jobs this year alone. "The place jobs have grown the most has been in these parts of the economy that women have traditionally filled more easily," said Diane Swonk, who studies labor trends as chief economist for Mesirow Financial Inc. in Chicago.
Women have taken restaurant and retail jobs instead of teaching and other public-sector career positions that have disappeared, said Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the Washington-based law center. Females lost 444,000 public-sector jobs in the four years starting in June 2009, when the recession ended, compared with 290,000 for men.
"They are taking jobs as baristas in Starbucks and other jobs that used to go to people without college degrees," Entmacher said. "It's an anecdote, but it's also a fact."
Women who worked full-time in 2012 received $37,791 in median income, 77 percent of what men earned, the Census Bureau said in a report Sept. 17. That percentage has changed little since 2007. The number of men working full-time rose by 1 million from 2011 to 2012, while the change for women wasn't statistically significant, according to the bureau's data.
"The very definition of what it means to be middle class is being undercut by trends in our economy that must be addressed," Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a Sept. 17 speech in Washington. "These trends -- like the increase in income inequality and the decline in upward mobility -- did not happen overnight."
While students and recent graduates are taking low-wage jobs to get started, other women are turning them down. About 2 million married women have dropped out of the work force since 2008.
"If they're in a two-income house they're more willing to drop out and take care of the children because it costs too much for day care," Swonk said.
Quality of jobs is tied directly to economic growth, she said.
"Growth is a magician when it comes to employment because it pulls people out of the woodwork that might not have worked otherwise and gives them an opportunity," Swonk said. "We're not going to have robust growth for a while."
Education may eventually shift the trend in favor of women, who accounted for a record 52 percent of college graduates in 2012.