Female Participation in the Labor Force

by Carlton Davis

Over the last century, the issue of women in the workplace has been a tumultuous one. Early in the 20th century, few women participated in the labor force. A woman's place was at home, taking care of the family and managing the domestic world. It was seen as unfit for women to be in certain professions, and most women did not work, other than going about their daily chores around the house. The Great Depression magnified this fact, as unemployment reached its highest levels in history but women, more than ever, stayed home to look after their husbands who now found themselves without work. World War II brought a complete reversal to this trend. Productivity boomed and the men left their homes, some to work, most to join the war effort. Women, in large masses for the first time, also hit the labor market. Dubbed "Rosie the Riveter", these women worked at manufacturing plants and at other technological industries that had previously seen only male employees. With the men off at war, these companies needed women to fill their shoes, and women streamed into the business. Since then, they have not looked back, as women employment in the labor force grew steadily in the four decades after World War II. It was not until very recently that female employment growth rates have leveled out. I hope to explain why this has happened, as well as examining different sectors of the economy and comparing women employment and men employment.

Just after World War II the civilian labor force participation for women was a paltry 32%. Today, however, some six decades later that rate has climbed in excess of 70%. For four solid decades after the war, this rate increased at an astounding rate. Early in the 1990s, however, this rate leveled off. This brought about much speculation as to whether or not women were thus starting to leave the labor force and, if so, what the causes of that might be. In order to look at this hypothesis more closely, we first need to break down the women in the labor force by age: 16-24 year olds, 25-34 year olds, 35-44 year olds, 45-54 year olds, and 55+ years. In the mid 1940's, 35-44 year olds were engaged in the labor force more than any other age group. In the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, this was still the case. Over the last 25 years, however, the younger age groups have exploded onto the work scene, drastically shooting up from a percentage (of women that age in the labor force) of 40 percent in 1970 to nearly 75 percent in the early 1990s. Until the 1970's, a graph of female participation rates in the labor force would look like an "M", with a large dip coming between the early 20's until the later-child bearing years, the mid 30's. However, with all age groups now actively participating in the labor force, that graph now looks like an upside down "U".

In the early 1990s participation rates of women abruptly flattened out. Initially much thought was given to the fact that more mothers were exiting the labor force temporarily in order to look after their children or become homemakers. Thus analysts turned to specific age groups. They found that there was a significant drop off in labor force participation rates of women ages 16-24. Historically, rates of this age group did follow business cycles, so why the sudden change? The explanation was that more females that age were enrolling in schools. School enrollment between 1987 and 1993 increased nearly 28 percent, and women in school were less likely to be employed in the labor force. Other age groups continued their slightly upward trend, with the only exception being the 16-24 year olds. One explanation as to why these women decided to attend school rather than remain in the labor force is the recession of the early 1990s. There was a recessionary job market, so the younger, less stable women chose to go back to school rather than seek alternate employment.

Since the early 1990s, however, the growth of women entering the labor force has resumed. The makeup of the group of women in the labor force has been influenced more recently than ever before on family structure. In the last ten years, mothers have accounted for most of the rise in women's overall labor force rate. For mothers with children between the ages of 6 and 17, an astonishing 77 percent are in the labor force. With children under 6, this percentage understandably dips to 62 points, but both largely higher than a decade ago. For mothers with infants less than a year old, the percentage entering the labor force has grown nearly 20 percent over the last decade. This trend is a strong reflection of today's societal norms: working for pay is an integral part of many women's lives, as opposed to early in the 20th century when housework was the norm.

The 1996 Welfare Reform Bill passed by Congress had an effect on poor and single mothers in the workplace. By trying to move women from welfare to work, the bill encouraged these women to find jobs, thus entering the labor force. Additionally, the real wages of met earning lower incomes has remained stagnant or even slightly fallen in recent years. The cost of a wife sitting around the house and taking care of the children has risen, so the wives have much more incentive, and need, now to go out and earn on their own. This, in turn, also puts pressure on single mothers to go out and work as well. These women do not necessarily work full-time year-round, but their entrance into the marketplace is a positive for not only them but the women's movement in general. It has gotten to the point, however, that marriage and children (except a pre-school aged child, where mothers tend to stay at home or work minimal hours) now have little effect on whether a not a woman works, and for how long she works. This is the societal norm, although access to other income (e.g. husband's earnings, single vs. married woman) still has a large effect on a woman's employment options. Women now spend a couple of hours more in the workplace per day than they do caring for their children as opposed to 20 years ago, yet many mothers are still not committed to full-time year-round employment.

Throughout the entire 20th century, women's wages have constantly lagged behind men's wages. If a woman and mad were both hired to do the same task, the man would be paid more than the women. That has been and continues to be the trend in the American capitalist state. One explanation has always been that the men are not only more qualified at the jobs but more efficient. Thus, the argument goes, they should be paid at a higher premium. Today, however, the wage gap is still existent, and very few would find that argument valid. So why do women still earn less than men, and why are women often discriminated against in the workplace?

When a child enters a family, it is the woman who, much more often than not, stays at home and cares for the new baby. When the women exits the labor force, she does not gain the seniority that she would have otherwise gotten had there been no child. When women return to the labor force, they are less likely to receive on the job training, and thus less like to increase their productivity and thus level of pay. The absence from the work force, even if only for several months to take care of a newborn child, can depreciate the job skills of women, so when they return back to work they are not as sharp and take some time to regain pre-birth efficiency in the office. Knowing this, employers are less likely to hire women who are in their prime years for giving birth. This also stands for women applying for new jobs; if they left the labor force once before for a child, chances are good that they might do it again. An employer will see this and thus shy away from hiring the woman, instead perhaps deferring to a man who would remain at work. Employers may even view those who do not take time away from work as more dedicated than women who do, regardless of the reason, and this could be reflected in reduced promotion possibilities, different job assignments, and other actions that could have salary implications. This is certainly not fair to women: it is not their fault that they are biologically the ones who give birth and must frequently look after the children. Regardless, the trend is that those women who do take time off from work often are overlooked for more competitive jobs and receive less pay.

I have just established that women are now in the labor force more than ever before. But now that they are working, what kinds of jobs are they doing? In private industry, the breakdown of women compared to men is interesting. In 2000 there were 44 million workers in private industry in the United States, 23.5 million of which were male, 20.5 million female. A more specific breakdown, however, shows some astounding differences. There were twice as many male officials and managers than there were females (3 million as opposed to 1.5 million). Officials and managers are described as "occupations requiring administrative and managerial personnel who set broad policies, exercise overall responsibility for execution of these policies, etc." Yet the number of workers defined as 'professionals' gives females the numeric advantage, 3.6 million to 3.4 million. Professionals are described as "occupations requiring either college graduation or experience of such kind." Thus even though the women labor force tends to be slightly more educated than the male labor force, it is the males who, by a 2:1 ratio, are in managerial and authoritative positions!

In other generic fields, there is also a stark contrast between males and females. Women outnumber men by roughly a 3:2 ratio in sales, and for office and clerical workers in private industry in the United States in 2000, there were over 5 million females and only slightly over 1 million males. This is no doubt a stereotype, the female secretary or clerical workers, but according to these statistics this stereotype seems to hold true. What reasons are there that so many more females are attracted to, or rather hold, secretarial jobs? There are many. On the flip side, however, there were six times as many male craft workers (skilled labor) than there were female craft workers in 2000. Perhaps females are not attracted to the demanding physical labor of such jobs, much the way males do not like clerical tasks. Historically, males have been overwhelmingly dominant in the field of physical labor. When some women were forced to work in factories for personal financial reasons, they were often despised and treated unequally. This, I am sure, led many females to be extremely not attracted to such professions. Likewise, females have always dominant as office secretaries and the like. Back when women first entered the labor force, these were often the only types of jobs available so they took them. Today, women still flock to these clerical jobs.

Looking at more specific job fields, these same general observations seem to hold true. In the field of engineering and management services, male office officials and managers greatly outweigh female managers. There are more than twice as many male technicians as female technicians, and over 12 times as many male skilled laborers than female skilled laborers. However, the number of female clerical workers is more than four times that of male clerical workers. Even male operatives (semiskilled workers) outnumber by three times the number of female operatives. These numbers show overwhelmingly that the technical aspect of engineering is enjoyed more by males, while the women are still confined to the office. In the field of legal services, females outnumber males by a 1.7:1 ration. Nearly two thirds of all females in this profession, however, are in fact office and clerical workers. Male professionals outnumber female professionals by a wide margin, and the trend shown in the general population holds true here, too. In the field of computers and office equipment, twice as many males as females hold jobs in this area. As usual, the number of female clerical workers greatly outweighs the number of male clerical workers. It comes as no surprise that, in the field of computers, male professionals, technicians, and skilled laborers greatly outweighs the number of female workers in these areas. The same trends can be seen in other areas such as communications. One profession bucking this trend, however, can be found in hospitals. Women hospital employees outnumber male hospital employees by more than a 3:1 margin. Additionally, the number of female officials and managers, professionals, and technicians outweigh the numbers for the males, not just in raw numbers but also in terms of percentages. Males, however, still comprise the vast majority of skilled laborers in this area. It is nice to see, however, an area that goes against the general trend.

Even though women seem to be dominant in a few fields of work and very scattered throughout many others, this is a change from a couple generations ago when most women were not even in the labor force. For women, this fact is definitely a step in the positive direction. Most women now hold jobs in the workplace, and are sustaining them for longer amounts of time than ever before. The next step is for women to immerse themselves in all fields of the labor force, rather than just concentrating on a selective few. This brings responsibility to males, too, to allow for women to reach the upper echelons of the labor force. In a labor force that has been historically dominated by males, this proves to be an intriguing situation over the next decade as more and more women aspire to the officials and managers that they are not today.

Sources: Developments in women's labor force participation, Monthly Labor Review, September 1997, pp. 41-46
Are Women Leaving the Labor Force? Monthly Labor Review, July 1994, pp. 37-39
Marriage, children, and women's employment: what do we know? Monthly Labor Review, December 1999, pp. 22-31
Effect of intermittent labor force attachment on women's earnings, Monthly Labor Review, September 1995, pp. 14-18
Women and the labor market: the link grows stronger, Susan E. Shank, Division of Labor Force Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics

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last updated 5/17/02