Female Participation in the U.S. Workforce Over Time

In the past five years, women have hit some significant milestones in the workforce.

Spanx’s Sara Blakely became the youngest self-made female billionaire in 2012. The Pentagon began allowing women in the military to serve on the front lines in 2013. A record-high 100 women were elected to serve in the 114th Congress in 2014. In 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau created a cabinet with an equal number of women and men, to align with the era of women in the workforce. And in 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first-ever female presidential nominee of a major party.

Such milestones are no surprise, since women’s overall presence in the labor force has increased dramatically from 30.3 million in 1970 to 72.7 million during 2006-2010, according to a recent blog post by online MBA program MBA@UNC. While this is certainly good news, it’s also helpful to explore what factors may be driving such significant growth—to better ensure that the trend continues.

Driving the trend

In an article for Huffington Post, writer Mehroz Baig turns to Norma Carr-Ruffino for insight into what may be driving the trend of more women in the workforce. An expert on women in management and the author of multiple books on women and diversity in the workplace, Carr-Ruffino says women started participating more in the workplace starting in the 1970s simply out of need. She  said, “It’s not so much that opportunities opened up for women but economic need” drove women to work. As that occurred, she credits the importance of affirmative action in helping to better position women in the workplace.

In addition, the White House published a report in 2014 which provides further insight. In “Eleven Facts About American Families and Work,” the authors also highlight the increase in women’s labor force participation since the 1970s and estimate that without the dynamics involved, the median family income would be $14,000 less today and that our “overall economy would be $2 trillion smaller.” Although the report notes that areas of stagnation remain, it cites several key facts that help explain the growing role that women are playing in today’s workforce.

  • Women are increasingly the household breadwinners—with more than 40 percent of mothers now the “sole or primary source of income for the household.” Of those who are married, 24 percent of women are earning more than their husbands, up from 7 percent in 1970. “In 2013, the income of employed married women comprised 44 percent of their family’s income, up from 37 percent in 1970.”
  • Fathers are increasingly family caregivers—which is freeing up mothers to focus more on work and careers. In fact, one in five fathers today serves as the primary caregiver of pre-school children when the mother is employed, and the number of stay-at-home fathers in families where the mother works has doubled in the last 25 years.
  • Women are increasingly among our most skilled workers—attaining the majority of college degrees and deepening their work experiences. More women started attending college in the 1970s and 1980s, and by the 1990s they were attending at the same rate as men. Today, “substantially more women than men attend and graduate college.” In fact, in 2014, women ages 25-34 were “more than 20 percent more likely than men to be college graduates,” and they are entering more occupations where men have historically dominated. In 1968, less than 10 percent of the entering classes of MD, JD and MBA programs were made up of women. Today that number has risen to nearly 50 percent in each program. Since educational attainment is a major driver of earnings, women with degrees typically make more, as well.
  • Millennial women have more labor market equality than previous generations—a fact that is also tied to advanced education. “Millennials are not only the most highly educated U.S. generation to date, but a larger share of that increase has come from the educational attainment of women,” a dynamic that has resulted in women closing the educational gap with men that dates back to World War II.

Women’s participation in the workforce has certainly increased over time, and current trends show no signs of slowing. As women continue to be armed with advanced education, higher salaries and better opportunities, they will occupy increasingly critical roles that better align with the skills and expertise they can provide.

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