The Transformative Rise of Women in the Workforce — and the Remaining Gaps

March 8, 2019 | Category: Summit Sounds Off

By Dr. Jeff Rosensweig

In his 2018 State of the Union (SOTU) address, President Donald Trump noted many jobs were created for women during his first two years as president. He is correct about a healthy gain of 2.66 million jobs for women, compared to 2.22 million jobs created for men. Both gains are impressive, especially given we are many years into an economic expansion.


Women in White

President Trump also cited, perhaps inadvertently, the record number of women who now serve in Congress. One quarter of each chamber are now comprised of women. There are 108 Democrat and 23 Republican women in Congress. His SOTU remarks opened the door for rows of women lawmakers to stand and applaud in celebration — wearing attention-getting white attire to honor past women suffragists.

Whatever your own political predilections, the most positive trend in the U.S. job market in the last 55 years has been the increased opportunities for women in the formal labor force. It’s an unfortunate fact that homemakers, stay-at-home moms or dads, are not counted as “employed,” despite the fact they have always worked long, hard hours to raise families. This was especially true during the 1950s and early 1960s, when many of today’s labor-saving conveniences did not exist.


Women Hold Up Half the Sky

Now, there are nearly 75 million women on U.S. payrolls — a figure that’s doubled since 1979. Even more dramatic was the growth over a mere 15 years from 1964 to 1979. In 1964, there were 18.5 million working women, a third of the labor force. With the commercial introduction of the birth control pill and the second feminist wave, the population of women workers grew to 37 million in 1979, or 41 percent. When it comes to employees on U.S. payrolls, 49.7 percent are now women. In the words of a Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky,” in today’s formal labor force.


Rising Population of Women Workers

Figure 1 illustrates the rising share of women among total U.S. workers. Women make up nearly half of the workforce, due to the convergence of their employment total to that of men. 

Figure 1 also indicates a second major trend — the significant rise in total jobs in the United States since 1964. The working population has swelled, thanks to both baby boomers entering the workforce and the immigration of workers. The creation of jobs for this massive cumulative increase, leading to the current very low unemployment rates, has been a superb accomplishment in the U.S. economy.

Figure 2 shows the annual growth rates of employment by gender. Each month is compared to the same month the year before. The key finding here is the women’s employment growth rate far exceeded men’s on average, which is how women workers rose from a much lower population to converge at the men’s level. Men’s job totals have risen at a compounded annual average of 1.2 percent for fully 55 years. This is impressive, but the 2.6 percent average growth for women has been truly transformative.

Today, the average growth rates are similar, since women have already joined the formal job market so impressively. Figure 2 does show, as President Trump claimed, women gained more jobs than men in the two years since his inauguration.


The Economy and Gender Representation in the Workforce

Notice also that the major differences in annual job changes by gender occur during recessions. Manufacturing and construction, dominated by men, face massive layoffs. This means men can face a steeper rate of job loss than women. The recessions of 1975, 1982, 1991, 2001, and most clearly, the Great Recession of 2008-2009 all illustrate this point. At the bottom, the total employment of men was 6.6 percent lower than a year before. For women, the loss was significant, but much less severe at 3.3 percent.

The percent of employed women actually rose to just over 50 percent during the Great Recession, before subsiding back to 49.7 percent. Why the blip? The Great Recession can be described as a “mancession.” Industries that produce goods, mainly manufacturing and construction, as opposed to services, are very cyclic. This means jobs in these industries expand in good times and fall sharply in bad economic times, such as recessions. People don’t buy cars and new homes in bad times, but they still go to the doctor or to school.

Women also suffered massive layoffs during the Great Recession. But because they represent the majority of workers in less cyclic sectors, like education and health care (77 percent) and government services (58 percent), women’s employment declined less than men’s. Indeed, health care jobs actually rose every month during the last decades, even during the Great Recession. Why?

Aging baby boomers. The upside for men is that their jobs in manufacturing and construction, which move with the business cycle, grew at a faster rate than that of more women-dominated industries during periods of rapid economic expansion such as the mid-1960s, the late-1970s and the mid-to-late 1980s.

Not only has the share of women in the workforce grown to nearly half, women are also making rapid and powerful strides in sought-after professions. Roughly 40 percent of women are doctors, lawyers and managers. They also make up 60 percent of accountants, auditors and pharmacists. Women now constitute just over half of students enrolling in law and medical schools, formerly professions dominated by men.


Gender Wage Gap

Despite larger numbers of women working in key professions, a gender wage gap persists. Male lawyers, doctors, CPAs and managers receive higher incomes, on average, than their female counterparts. This may be partly due to seniority and experience, as women entered some of these professions more recently. But the gap continues and is narrowing slowly.

On the other hand, women are gaining seniority in the work place. Women represented only 33 percent of senior managers in 2011. The good news is that share has risen steadily and reached 47 percent last year (Accounting MOVE Project Report, Wilson-Taylor Associates, Inc.). This is an example of a positive trend toward closing the gender gap. However, women may be rising as business managers, but only 5 percent are Fortune 500 CEOs, according to Forbes. Further, the vast majority of partners in law and accounting firms are still men.

In conclusion, the major trend over the last two or three generations has been the significant growth of women entering the U.S. job market. Opportunities and cultural norms have changed with the majority of women now on payrolls and no longer working as full-time homemakers. The vast contributions of women in the U.S. workforce will become even more crucial as baby boomers continue to retire.

Dr. Jeff Rosensweig is an international business and finance professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. He directs the John Robson Program for Business, Public Policy and Government. The views here are his own and do not represent those of Securian Financial or Emory University. This article was first published in the March edition of Viewpoint by Securian Financial.