Women in the Labor Force

By Tasci, Murat; Mowry, Beth | Economic Trends, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Women in the Labor Force


Tasci, Murat, Mowry, Beth, Economic Trends


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That women's experience in the labor force has changed in several notable ways over the past few decades is highlighted in a report just published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since the 1970s, women have increased the level of their participation in the labor force, their earnings in real terms are higher, their attachment to the labor market is stronger, and they are attaining higher levels of education.

The higher participation of women in the labor force has often been cited as one of the most important trends in U.S. labor markets. Since the late 1940s, the rate of female labor force participation has been gradually increasing--from about 32 percent then to about 59 percent in 2007. Interestingly, the significant increase of women in the labor force did not translate into a comparable increase in the total labor force participation rate, because the trend for men's labor force participation has been declining. While the rate of female labor force participation jumped dramatically over this period, the rate of male participation dropped from 87 percent to 73 percent, leaving the total labor force participation rate at around 66 percent.

The increasing movement of women into the labor force has been matched by their attainment of higher levels of education. In 1970, one-third of women in the labor force were high school dropouts and only one-tenth held bachelor's degrees. By 2006, these figures had swapped places, with less than one-tenth of women in the labor force having dropped out of high school and almost one-third holding bachelor's degrees. This rising educational attainment helps to explain how women in 2006 accounted for more than half of all workers employed in the better-paying management, professional, and related occupations, despite the fact that women make up only 46.3 percent of the total number of people employed. Women are also the majority in service occupations and office and administrative support positions. However, they are dramatically underrepresented in several occupations, given the share of women in the overall workforce: construction and extraction; installation, maintenance, and repair; and transportation and material moving.

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Income disparity between men and women has continued its narrowing trend. Women in 2006 took home 80 percent of what their male counterparts made, compared to only 62 percent in 1979. White and Asian women continue to experience the greatest disparity, earning about 80 percent as much as white and Asian men, while Hispanic and African American women make 87 percent as much as their male counterparts. Meanwhile, wives' contribution to family incomes rose from 27 percent to 35 percent between 1970 and 2005. More than 25 percent of wives now earn more than their husbands, compared to 18 percent in 1987.

Over the past several decades, women have become more attached to the labor force, even when they are out of a job. This stronger attachment is suggested by several observations.

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