The Rise of Women in the Labor Force

A few weeks ago, I showed you the graph below. It shows the wages of women working full-time and full-year compared to men. The graph contained both good news and bad news. The good news is that the gender pay gap is lower today than forty years ago. The bad news is that this progress stopped around the year 2000. Actually, that’s the same year my progress towards being six feet tall stopped. Weird. Anyway, today I want to focus on one of the reasons for the good news: the rise of women’s labor force participation.

Figure 1. Ratio between the Median Women’s and Median Men’s Earnings, 1975-2017.

Note: This figure represents the wages of 25-54 year old working women relative to men of the same age, all of whom who were working full-time and full-year and were not self-employed. The data come from The Current Population Survey March Supplement from 1976 to 2018.

The figure above starts in 1975. At that point in time, about 56 percent of women were in the labor force, i.e., they were either working or looking for work. Today, the number sits at just above 75 percent. This increase matters. After all, worker’s with more experience command higher wages. And while women were working more over this time period, men were working a bit less. Hence, the closing of the gender gap.

But, this increase in women’s labor force participation was not uniform. It mainly occurred for one group of women — those who are married. The share of single women working rose from 72 to 79 percent between 1975 and 2017, less than 10 percent. For married women, the rise was from 50 to 72 percent, an over 40 percent increase. Why did this happen?

The Role of Technology

Technology has gotten a bad rap in this blog so far. But, technology also has a role to play in enabling married women to work more. To understand why, it can help to think about marriage like an economist. You see, most people think marriage is about love and finding your soulmate. Lame. Economists think of marriage as being about the division of labor within a household.

The idea is pretty simple. The goal of the household is to take income earned in the labor market and turn it into household goods. Money is used to buy food at the grocery store, which is turned into dinner through cooking. Cleaning supplies are purchased to make a nice home environment through some scrubbing. In the past, married men typically earned the money and women did the work of converting that money into household goods. While single women had to work in the labor market to support themselves, married women used their time to maintain the household.

And, at the time, this arrangement made some sense. After all, someone had to do the housework, and that work took time. But, technology has made many of these tasks much easier. Take a look at the figure below, which shows how the use of common household technologies has changed.

Figure 2. The Use of Time-Saving Technologies Over Time

Note: This figure has been adapted from Ritchie and Rose (2018).

If we compare 2005 to 1975, we can see dishwashers, washing machine’s, dryers, and especially microwaves are more common. And, going back to 1950, the differences are even more stark. The net result of these changes is a reduction in the total amount of time spent on housework.  For example, an analysis of the American Time Use Survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts found a 25 percent drop in the amount of time households with children spend on housework.  This decline in undoubtedly freed up women to work outside the home.

The Role of Changing Attitudes

But, something else changed too. In the same Pew study, women’s housework per week fell from 32 hours to 18, a reduction of 44 percent.  But for men, the amount actually increased from 4 hours a week to 10, offsetting some of the reduction for women. In other words, women used to do 90 percent of the total 36 hours of housework. Now, they do 64 percent of the 28 hours of housework. Women still do more housework (why is my wife nodding?), but beyond technology, men have also helped reduce the load.

This increase by men likely reflects a change in societal attitudes. One way to see this change is to look at data from the General Social Survey. This survey has been asking people some of the same questions since the 1970s. One of those questions is whether someone agreed with the statement, “it is better for men to work and women to tend home.” The figure below shows the sharp decline in people agreeing with this statement. So, while technology has reduced the need to have someone work on housework, attitudes have also changed substantially. Indeed, both men (grey bars) and women (red bars) are much less likely to agree with that statement today.

Figure 3. Share of People Who Agree that Women Should Tend Home

Note: Data come from the General Social Survey, National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago.

Conclusion

Women’s labor force participation rose dramatically from the mid-1970s until about 2000, before leveling out. This increase matters. A woman born in 1950 could expect to have about 11.5 years of work experience by age 45. For a woman born in 1970, the number is 13.5. Because employers value experience, those two extra years of experience have likely increased women’s wages by 5 to 8 percent. But while women’s rising labor force participation is part of the story of their increased earnings relative to men, it’s not the whole thing. Education also matters, but that’s a story for next week.

2 Comments

  1. Great article Jeff! I think you do a fantastic job of making the data accessible and I’m glad to see that your dad jokes are still going strong.

    Even with all of these variables though, the question lingers what else hasn’t been captured? The obvious answer is gender biases in wages. Yet the age old question that we continue to struggle with is “to what degree does bias impact wages?” That said, I think the conclusion you draw helps us tease apart the experience portion from this very well.

    I’d be curious to know if there are any studies that compare stay-at-home fathers to stay-at home mothers that also look at this question.

    1. Hi Will,

      It’s a good question. I have not seen a study comparing stay at home moms to dads. However, there is some very interesting research that tries to tease apart the various reasons women have converged to men and yet also why they remain apart. See, Blau, Francine D., and Lawrence M. Kahn. 2017. “The Gender Wage Gap: Extent, Trends, and Explanations.” Journal of Economic Literature 55(3): 789-865.

      Geoff

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