The Female Labor Market Is Actually Stagnating

And there's no evidence to suggest that better family-friendly policies would put more women into business leadership roles

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The announcement last week that women are now the primary breadwinners in 40% of American households unleashed the usual reflexive responses. Attempting what looked like self-parody, Fox News featured an all-male quartet of pundits sputtering about the decline of women’s “natural” role. Some saw welcome progress for women, while others viewed the 40% figure as more evidence that the “End of Men” is nigh. Either way, it’s hardly cause for celebration that two-thirds of the female (mainly poor) primary earners are really the family’s only earner because they lack a partner or spouse to share the burden.

But amid all the tumult, few paused to consider why the 40% figure isn’t even higher. Yes, women have made major gains in the workforce compared with their participation in the labor market in the late 1960s, but much of that growth took place in the 1970s and ’80s and has stalled in more recent decades. In 1990, 74% of American women were in the workforce. Twenty years later, that number has increased by only a percentage point, to 75%. Other countries, meanwhile, have surged ahead of us.

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According to a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, in rankings of the percentage of women in the workforce, the U.S. actually fell from sixth place to No. 17 out of 22 developed countries. The authors, Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, estimate that almost a third of the slowdown in women’s workforce participation can be explained by our comparatively inadequate infrastructure for working parents. Meanwhile, other developed countries, such as Portugal, Finland and Luxembourg, started out at a lower baseline (an average of 67%) and have seen their rates grow to 80% or higher. Something seems amiss when even Switzerland, a country that didn’t grant women the vote until 1971, leaves the U.S. in the gender dustbin.

And yet it’s not so simple. First, it’s not just women who have stalled in the American job market. Men’s workforce participation is also lagging, as a result of the economic downturn, an aging population and a decades-long decline in traditionally male manufacturing jobs.

Second, it turns out all those progressive countries with better profamily policies don’t necessarily help women’s professional advancement overall. As reported in an article in the Atlantic, American women are twice as likely to work full time as European women and also more likely to be senior managers or skilled professionals. It’s possible that employers hesitate to promote women who step on and off the career ladder. Or perhaps the family-friendly work options in European countries make the prospect of “leaning in” paradoxically unappealing.

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Given a black-and-white choice between work and no work, the majority of women clearly choose the former. But given the option of a more viable work-life balance, with longer maternity leave, for example, or a job that’s been refitted to part-time hours, there’s no reason to believe some American women wouldn’t choose, like their European peers, to grab that brass ring pretty fast. It’s clear we urgently need to patch the holes in our frayed tapestry of family care. Yet even when we do, economic projections and the experience of other developed countries suggest that we’ll always have a percentage of women for whom the work-life balance is weighted more heavily toward family than the corner office.

It shouldn’t be such a surprise that women, like men, derive different degrees of satisfaction and financial security from their jobs. And yet we are all too quick to overinterpret every piece of news about working women, declaring it a sign of success or failure. There are more nuanced, real-life stories than the caricatures we hear, the Sheryl Sandbergs and the Ann Romneys, who occupy opposite ends of the work-home continuum. If we really want to understand the female labor market in all its complexity, we need to hear more of them.

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