Women and the Economy

Women and the Economy

On August 26, 2010, Americans celebrated the 90th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote and led to their increased participation in our political system. In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro shattered the political glass ceiling by becoming the first woman nominated to a national ticket and ushered in a new era of political leadership for women.

Over the last quarter century, women have become a powerful political force, both as voters and as elected leaders. Did that political benchmark have implications for women’s economic well-being? Data compiled by the Joint Economic Committee suggest that the answer is yes. Twenty-five years ago, America was recovering from the double-dip recession of the 1980s, and women’s role in the labor force was beginning a multi-decade-long period of expansion. Today, as our nation’s economy continues down the road to recovery from the Great Recession, women are poised to be the engine of future economic growth.

Women comprise half of all U.S. workers, and well over half of all American women are in the labor force. Women’s educational attainment outstrips that of men, and women’s share of union membership is growing rapidly. Families are increasingly dependent on working wives’ incomes in order to make ends meet. Despite a quarter-century of progress, however, challenges remain. While the pay gap has narrowed over the last 25 years, the average full-time working woman earns only 80 cents for every dollar earned by the average full-time working man. Certain industries remain heavily gender-segregated. In addition, millions of women are struggling to juggle work outside the home with family care-giving responsibilities.

In the last 25 years, women’s labor force participation has grown sharply. In 1984, 53.6 percent of women were in the labor market. By 2009, that number had grown to 59.2 percent. All of the growth in women’s labor force participation occurred prior to 2000. In contrast, over that same period, men’s labor force participation rates were falling. Since the late 1990s, women’s labor force participation rates have remained roughly flat while men’s labor force participation has continued to decline. Women’s share of payroll employment has grown over the last 25 years.

In 1984, women comprised just 44 percent of payroll employment. In 2009, women comprised nearly half (49.8 percent) of payroll employment. The recent gender parity in payroll employment is most likely explained by the disparate impact of the Great Recession on industries, such as construction and manufacturing, which employ greater concentrations of men than women. The number of women in the workforce has grown by 44.2 percent over the last 25 years, from 46 million in 1984 to 66 million in 2009. Yet the distribution of those working women’s work schedules has remained remarkably constant: about one-quarter work part-time, while the remaining three-quarters work full-time. Progress toward gender parity by industry has been varied over the last 25 years.

In 1984, women made up 50 percent or more of the workforce in three industries: government, education and health services, and financial activities. By 2009, women made up 50 percent or more of the workforce in 5 industries: government, leisure and hospitality, education and health services, financial activities, and other services. In some industries, little progress has been made. For instance, women comprised just over 13 percent of those employed in construction in 2009, compared to 12 percent in 1984. And in some industries, women have lost ground. While women comprised 49 percent of those employed in the information industry in 1984, they made up just 42 percent of the industry in 2009. Similarly, in 1984 women comprised 32 percent of the manufacturing industry.

In 2009, women were just 29 percent of the manufacturing workforce. Women’s educational attainment has edged out men’s in the last twenty-five years. In 2009, 87 percent of women had at least four years of high school or more education, as compared to 86 percent of men. In contrast, in 1984, 74 percent of men and 73 percent of women had at least four years of high school or more education.
From “Women and the Economy 2010”. Report by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, August 2010

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