Meet the Author

Murat Tasci |

Research Economist

Murat Tasci

Murat Tasci is a research economist in the Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. He is primarily interested in macroeconomics and labor economics. His current work focuses on business cycles and labor markets, labor market policies, and search frictions.

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Meet the Author

Beth Mowry |

Research Assistant

Beth Mowry

Beth Mowry was formerly a research assistant in the Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Her work focuses on labor markets and business cycles.

12.05.07

Economic Trends

Women in the Labor Force

Murat Tasci and Beth Mowry

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.

 

Women’s Occupations, 2006

 

 

Total employed
(thousands)

Percent
women

Total, 16 years and over

144,427

46.3

Management, professional,
and related occupations

50,420

50.6

 Management, business
 and financial operations

21,233

41.8

 Professional and related occupations

29,187

56.9

Service occupations

23,811

57.3

Sales and office occupations

36,141

63.3

 Sales and related occupations

16,641

49.1

 Office and administrative support
 occupations

19,500

75.4

Natural resources, construction,
and
maintenance

15,830

4.8

 Farming, fishing, and forestry
 occupations

961

22.1

 Construction and extraction
 occupations

9,507

3.1

 Installation, maintenance, and repair
 occupations

5,362

4.6

Production, transportation, and
material moving

18,224

22.8

 Production occupations

9,378

30.4

 Transportation and material moving
 occupations

8,846

14.8

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. Since the early 1980s, the unemployment rate for women has closely followed that of men. In addition, during the last three recessions, women’s unemployment rates stayed lower than men’s—and this occurred during the time the participation of women in the labor force was steadily increasing. And finally, more women are working full-time, and fewer are working part-time. From 1970 to 2005, the percentage of working females with work experience who were full-timers grew from 68 percent to about 73 percent, while the percentage of those who were part-timers fell from 32 percent to about 27 percent.

 

Women with Work Experience

Year

Percent of
female population

Total Usually work
full-time
Usually work
part-time
Total 50–52
weeks

1–49
weeks

Total

50–52
weeks

1–49
weeks

1970
52.7
100.0
67.9
40.7
27.2
32.2
10.1
22.1
1975
53.8
100.0
67.1
41.4
25.7
32.8
11.7
21.1
1980
57.7
100.0
67.7
44.7
23.0
32.3
11.9
20.4
1985

59.4

100.0
68.1
48.9
19.2
31.8
12.3
19.5
1990
62.1
100.0
69.8
51.5
18.3
30.2
12.8
17.4
1995

62.8
100.0
70.2
54.3
15.9
29.7
13.3
16.4
2000
64.0
100.0
72.9
58.4
14.5
27.1
13.4
13.7
2005
61.4
100.0
72.7
59.9
12.8
27.3
14.1
13.2