Economic Activity and Labor
Women in the Workforce
Since Congress designated a week in March to honor women’s history in 1981 (expanding it to the whole month six years later), women’s contributions to the labor force have changed dramatically. In this report, we highlight gender differences in the employment situation over the last 25 years.
A higher percentage of working-age women are participating in the labor force today (59.5 percent) than in 1981 (52.1 percent). The labor force participation rate of men, on the other hand, has fallen since 1981 (from 77 percent to 73.5 percent). At the same time, the proportion of men and women in the pool of working age noninstitutional civilians (ages 16-64) have remained roughly equal.
Both men and women today are more educated than in the past. The fraction of women with a high school degree (or more) has gone from 69.1 percent to 85.5 percent in the last 25 years. In 1981, only 13.4 percent of women age 25 and above had earned a bachelor’s degree, but as of 2005 (the most recent data available), 27 percent had. Although men complete high school at a lower rate than women (84.9 percent, up from 70.3 percent), they still maintain a slight edge in completing four years of college (28.9 percent, up from 21.1 percent).
With better labor force participation and more education, women’s median incomes have gradually improved over the past 25 years. In 2005, the women who worked year-round and full-time earned a median income of $33,256--about 79 percent of the median income of full-time men ($42,188). The gap was much larger in 1981, when the median annual income of full-time men was $42,444 (in 2005 dollars), and full-time women made about 60 percent of that ($25,552).
Historically, more women have worked in service industries, such as retail, business, and education, than in goods-producing industries, such as mining, construction, and manufacturing, and today’s figures follow suit: Over half of the employees in service industries are female, but women constitute only 21.5 percent of the workforce in goods-producing industries. Service industries employ far more people than goods-producers, incidentally, as nearly four out of five workers (79.8 percent) are employed in the service sector.
The top five occupations for women in the United States today are in the services sector: 14.6 million women have jobs in office administration or office support, 9.2 million have jobs in management, business, or financial operations, and 8.2 million have sales or sales-related jobs. In the remaining two top jobs, women are employed as education, training, and library staff or healthcare practitioners and technicians. In contrast, two of the top five occupations for men are in goods-producing industries: 9.2 million men are employed in construction and extraction, and 6.3 million are employed in manufacturing jobs.
Over the course of the four most recent business cycles, women have gained a larger percentage of the job openings during recovery periods than men, helping to close the male-female gap in the employment share.
The recovery from the latest recession (March 2001), followed the same pattern: Women experienced fewer job losses and higher job gains on average than men over the same time period. Female employment recuperated after 40 months, 6 months before the average civilian employee. Male employment lagged behind, recovering 50 months after the recession, and did not catch up to female employment until 10 months later.
The current expansion shows a slight advantage for women in terms of employment, nearly 70 months after the previous business cycle peak. Most of the employment growth women have experienced during periods of recession and recovery is connected to the resilience of the service industries and the weakening of the manufacturing sector. Differences in the cyclical responses of the service and goods sectors have been more pronounced in the last two recessions. For example, service industries fared much better than goods-producing industries during the 2001 recession and its recovery, as well as during the subsequent expansion phases. Goods-producing industries shed many jobs over the course of the past business cycle and have yet to claim recovery, while service industries recaptured their losses about 28 months after the last cycle peak and have pulled total employment up from then on.
Service occupations, which employ more women, are becoming more prominent in today’s economy and experience less cyclical volatility. Goods-producing industries, on the other hand, employ more men and have struggled to regain employment losses from recessions, even during long periods of expansion. Thus, the current expansion is not what some have termed a “jobless recovery” for women, but rather a chance to make up ground.
“Women and Jobs in Recoveries: 1970-93," by William Goodman. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics, Monthly Labor Review, July 1994, pp. 28-36.
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