Women are now half of workers on U.S. payrolls, according to USA Today. This is an important new trend in the U.S. economy and a stunning transformation from a generation ago. In 1970, women made up 43.8 percent of workers, while in July 2009 (the latest data available), women held 49.9 percent of all jobs.
The change in the composition of the U.S. labor force is both the outcome of long- and short-term trends. Women have been steadily increasing their labor force participation for decades, rising from 43.3 percent in 1970 to 60.8 percent this August (among women over age 20).
Alongside this increase in women in the labor force, we have seen great strides towards gender equality. The gender gap has narrowed, women now occupy a far wider range of jobs, and women are more likely to be in positions of power compared to only a few decades ago. The news this week that Diane Sawyer will now be the second woman to anchor the nightly news for a major U.S. network—joining Katie Couric—is yet another testament to how far women have advanced in today’s workforce.
Although women are now half of all workers, they are not half of workers in all kinds of jobs. It remains the case that the jobs women most hold are those that we typically think of as "women’s work"—secretaries and administrative assistants, cashiers, nurses, school teachers, salespersons, waitresses, retail floor managers, receptionists, and maids. This segregation of women into different jobs than men is one of the primary factors explaining the continuing wage gap between men and women, where women, on average, bring home just 78 cents on the male dollar.
But it has been the recession that has tilted the scale towards women actually becoming half of the workforce. Since December 2007—when the recession began in the United States—men have lost three out of every four jobs. The reason for this is because half of all job losses have been in construction or manufacturing, industries that disproportionately employ men.
Thus, while the news that women are half the workers is a marker on the long path toward equality, it is also a testimony about the current economic malaise. The share of adult men in the United States with a job has never been lower, since we began recording employment data in 1948. In August, it hit 67.4 percent, meaning that fewer than seven in 10 adult men have a job. Prior to this recession, the share of men with a job had never fallen below 70 percent.
What this means is that there are now 2 million working wives today with an unemployed partner. These families are trying to make ends meet on her earnings alone. Given that in the typical married-couple family where both spouses work, the wife brings home just over a third—35.6 percent—of the family’s income, this means that families are indeed experiencing an economic hardship. For women to support families, we need to do more to ensure pay equity.
On top of this, in the U.S., working families who have health insurance are most likely to get it from his job, not hers. As men have lost jobs, families are left not only without his typically higher earnings, but often without access to health insurance as well. De-linking access to health insurance from employment and ensuring that everyone, regardless of gender, has access to health care would be a place to start.
It may be that women cross that line and become the majority of U.S. workers. But, it may not. Women losing their jobs could begin to catch up with men’s dismal unemployment numbers if job gains stall in the sectors that disproportionately employ women. For example, as state and local budget cuts become reality and government layoffs mount, women will lose jobs, since they make up the majority of these workers. Over the past year, government has shed 69,000 workers, and there’s no end in sight to budget woes for the foreseeable future.
The news that women are half of all workers is indeed a story of women’s accomplishments. But, it is also a story about the fallout from the Great Recession and how the massive job losses among men have pushed women to the 50 percent threshold.
Heather Boushey is a Senior Economist at the Center for American Progress. For more on this topic, please visit our Economy page.
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