Our Working Nation

How Working Women Are Reshaping America’s Families and Economy and What It Means for Policymakers

Report from Heather Boushey and Ann O'Leary on how working women are reshaping America’s families and economy and what it means for policymakers.

Women now make up half of all workers in the United States, a threshold never reached before in the history of our nation. Mothers are now primary breadwinners—making as much or more than their spouse or doing it all on their own—in nearly 4 in 10 families. (Reuters/Richard Carson)
Women now make up half of all workers in the United States, a threshold never reached before in the history of our nation. Mothers are now primary breadwinners—making as much or more than their spouse or doing it all on their own—in nearly 4 in 10 families. (Reuters/Richard Carson)

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When we look back over the 20th century and try to understand what’s happened to American workers and their families, the movement of women out of the home and into paid employment stands out as one of the most important transformations. Women are now half of all workers on U.S payrolls, two-thirds of mothers are bringing home at least a quarter of the family’s earnings, and 4 in 10 mothers are either the sole breadwinner (a single, working mother) or are bringing home as much or more than their spouse (see Figure 1). This increase in women’s workforce participation and contribution to the family income has been dramatic across all racial and class lines, but is particularly striking among low-income women who are now primary breadwinners in two-thirds of their families.

The movement of women into employment has transformed how we work and live. Yet government, business, educational, and other social institutions all around us are not keeping pace. Consider these everyday realities faced by so many families across the nation:

Inside the home, the majority of families no longer have someone to deal with life’s everyday humdrum details or emergencies—from helping the kids with homework to doing the grocery shopping, or from being home for a sudden home repair emergency to picking up a sick child from school or taking an ailing parent to the doctor.

the new workforce

Workplaces are no longer the domain of men: Women are now half (49.9 percent) of employees on employer’s payrolls. While most men and women continue to work in different kinds of jobs, most workers under 40 today have never known a workplace without women bosses and women colleagues. Yet the vast majority of workplaces are still structured as though all workers have a stay-at-home spouse to deal with family needs.

Schools still let children out in the afternoon long before the workday ends and close for three months during the summer—even though the majority of families with children are comprised of either a single working parent or a dual-earning couple.

Most workers—men and women—now have family responsibilities that they must negotiate with their spouses, family members, bosses, colleagues, and employees, as well as the institutions around them, such as the child care center or a doctor’s office that doesn’t have evening or weekend hours—even though so many people work odd hours in our 24/7 economy. Yet many workers have little power in negotiating their schedules with their employer, especially in nonunion settings.

the new normal

The federal government has not updated its policies to aid families to reflect these new realities in the workplace and in the home. And the laws we do have on the books—the provision of unpaid, job-protected leave offered by the Family and Medical Leave Act and the prohibition against sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act—don’t fully meet the needs of today’s workers, especially lower-income workers. Nor to any great degree have state and local governments updated their laws to address these problems. Yet this is one of the most significant policy challenges of the 21st century. Policymakers need to re-evaluate the values and assumptions underlying our nation’s workplace policies to ensure that they reflect the actual—not outdated or imagined—ways that families work and care for their loved ones today.

Decades ago, the most common family consisted of a breadwinner husband and a stay-at-home wife (see Figure 2). While even then that did not describe the majority of families—and families of color have long been more likely to have working mothers—now, this is not even the most common type of family. Instead, there is a flowering of a variety of kinds of families. The marriage rate is currently at the lowest point in its recorded history, and divorce remains a steady presence in the lives of many families. More than one in five families with children is headed by a single parent. There are approximately 770,000 same-sex couples living in the United States, 20 percent of whom are raising children. This poses challenges for policymakers who must craft policies that meet the needs of all these kinds of families, not only the minority of families that look like “traditional” families.

Perhaps one of the biggest underreported implications of this transformation is the impact on men. No longer do men always bear the full burden of earning the majority of the family’s finances, but they are now more likely to have—and want—to take time off work to attend to their family. With most mothers contributing to the family’s budget, there are relatively few families with a full-time stay-at-home wife. Men and women are now left to negotiate the challenges of work-family conflict, such as who will go in to work late to take an elderly family member to the doctor or stay home with a sick child. Given this, it comes as no surprise that men in dual-earner couples today are reporting even more work-family conflict than women.

In the United States, our policies more often than not implicitly assume that families have someone at home that provides care and can deal with school hours that are inconsistent with workday patterns or hospitals that send home recovering patients who need assistance. Many of our workplaces put no limits on mandatory overtime, do not require employers to provide predictable schedules, and discipline employees for even asking to talk with their employer about the kinds of workplace flexibility they need to cope with the complexities of modern family life. This is no way to run an economy and care for the next generation of Americans.

businesses that don't adapt

Americans are hungering for change. Our poll conducted for The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything shows that most Americans agree that women working is good for the economy and society, and most also agree that our institutions need to embrace this new reality. A full 85 percent of Americans agree that businesses that fail to adapt to the needs of modern families risk losing good workers. This includes 84 percent of men, 87 percent of women and 91 percent of liberals, and 80 percent of conservatives (see Figure 3).

This report outlines a policy agenda that addresses the needs of today’s workers and families as they really are, not as we imagine them to be. The agenda is inclusive and focuses on policies that we believe have the most political saliency and for which advocates can build a broad coalition of support. The policy agenda laid out here explicitly focuses on ensuring that workers from across the income strata and in all kinds of families can make use of these policies and that the agenda will lead to a marked improvement in the ability of families to manage work-family conflict. But while this report outlines key policies, it is not an exhaustive list. We focus on four key areas where we believe we need to make the most important changes:

  • Updating basic labor standards to account for the fact that most workers also have family responsibilities by instituting predictable and flexible workplace schedules, ensuring that workers have access to paid family and medical leave, and establishing the right to paid sick days for all workers
  • Improving basic fairness in our workplace by ending discrimination against all workers, including pregnant women and caregivers
  • Providing direct support to working families with child care and eldercare needs
  • Improving our knowledge about family responsive workplace policies by collecting national data on work-life policies offered by employers and analyzing the effectiveness of existing state and local policies.

We can improve our economy’s productivity, our businesses’ global economic competitiveness, and our society’s ability to care for our children, our sick, and our elderly. These are 21st century reforms that simply must be enacted.

These recommendations are not just good policy; they are good politics. They have a broad, cross-cutting base of support and can be crafted to work for workers in all kinds of families; not only for professional workers, but for middleand low-income workers as well.

Some will question whether this is the right time to address these issues, given that the U.S. unemployment rate remains near 10 percent. For employers, one of the key findings from research over the past couple of decades has been that failing to address work-family conflict hampers productivity, primarily through increasing costly employee turnover. What employers need to recognize is that the worker with care responsibilities or the need for flexibility is no longer the exception, but is now the rule.

Management styles that can rise to the challenge of finding workable solutions to this problem will see the benefits in the bottom line. As employers, both public and private, look to implementing more part-time work and furloughs due to the Great Recession, this provides them with opportunities to experiment with policies on reduced hours, of which there is now a large literature on “best practices.”

This agenda lays out a vision that addresses a challenge that has been a half century in the making. A key piece signaling recovery from the Great Recession will be seeing real growth in family incomes. But addressing the time squeeze and stresses of life for working families—all of them—will not happen until we address their work-family conflicts. And this will remain a potent political issue longer after the recession turns into a solid recovery.

We hope these progressive recommendations will help policymakers see the wisdom and political saliency of enacting reforms that match the needs of our workplaces with the needs of our families. We can improve our economy’s productivity, our businesses’ global economic competitiveness, and our society’s ability to care for our children, our sick, and our elderly. These are 21st century reforms that simply must be enacted.

Read the full report (pdf)

Download the executive summary (pdf)

Information about the Our Working Nation project

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Heather Boushey

Senior Fellow

Ann O’Leary

Senior Fellow