Social Changes Lead Married Women into Labor Force

By Engemann, Kristie M.; Owyang, Michael T. | Regional Economist, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Social Changes Lead Married Women into Labor Force


Engemann, Kristie M., Owyang, Michael T., Regional Economist


The female labor force participation rate-the percent of civilian women who are in the labor force-has increased so much over the last 50 years in large part because many more married women are working.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau show that from 1955 to its peak in 1999, the labor force participation (LFP) rate for all women increased by 24.3 percentage points. The attached figure shows that the rate for married women has more than doubled since 1955, while the rates for the other two groups have increased by much less.

Several theories try to explain this rise in married women's LFP.1 In this article, we focus on whether social impetus-in particular, changes in intra-marital relationships-can explain the rise. We explore three hypotheses suggested by economic studies: adoption of advanced technology, changes in marital preferences and use of the birth control pill.

Household Production

Social attitudes toward women and their role in society have changed since World War II ended. However, economists Jeremy Greenwood, Ananth Seshadri and Mehmet Yorukoglu have argued that married women could not enter the labor force in large numbers until housework had become less time-consuming. Specifically, the authors focused on widespread adoption of advanced technology-e.g., washing machines, vacuums and dishwashers-that greatly reduced the time needed for housework.2

Greenwood, Seshadri and Yorukoglu imagined a household made up of a male who always works in the labor market and a female who always does the housework. The couple decides whether the woman also should work outside the home. The authors then determined the effects on women's LFP of technological adoption, of the decreasing gap between men's and women's wages, of the interaction of technology and wages, and of the falling price of technology (which spurs widespread adoption). They found that more than half of the increase in women's LFP was due to labor-saving technology. Only one-fifth of the increase was directly due to the declining gender-wage gap, while the remainder was caused by the interaction of the two variables.

These results show that the technology was necessary to free women's time before a better outside option could encourage them to join the labor force.

Working Mothers, Working Wives

In their 2004 study, economists Raquel Fernández, Alessandra Fogli and Claudia Olivetti hypothesized that men with working mothers were more likely to have working wives. A son's preference to marry a woman who works may have been influenced by having a working mother. Also, a working mother could make her son more productive with household chores, thus allowing his wife more time for work outside the home.

To test their theory, the authors used two datasets. One included white men whose wives were 30-50 years old when the survey was taken. After controlling for some background characteristics, Fernández, Fogli and Olivetti found that the probability that a married woman worked full-time (at the time of the survey) was 32 percentage points higher if her husband's mother worked for at least one year when he was young.3

Using the other survey, which includes more background information on the wife, the economists wanted to see if a mother's decision to work also affects her daughter's decision to work. If so, the relationship between having a working wife and a working mother might simply be due to marriages among couples in which both mothers worked. This sample included white couples who were 55 years old or younger when they were interviewed in 1980. Here, the authors defined a working mother as one who worked "all the time"when the husband/wife was growing up. Surprisingly, after controlling for other variables, the wife's work decision was unaffected by her own mother's labor force status. As with the first survey, the probability that the wife worked full-time increased by 24 percentage points if her husband's mother worked "all the time.

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