Insights and Perspectives

Insights and Perspectives


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Celebrating Working Women from the Past, Present, and Future

March is Women's History Month, a time to honor women’s contributions to history, culture, and society. The celebration of Women's History Month in the United States dates back to the early 20th century. In 1978, the first celebration of Women’s History Week took place in Sonoma, California. The movement continued to grow, and in 1987, Congress designated March as Women's History Month. Since then, each U.S. President has issued annual proclamations to honor and recognize the contributions of women to American history and society. As we reflect on the progress made, it is essential to shine a spotlight on women in the workforce, acknowledging the major strides women have made in the labor market, and addressing the challenges that they still face.  

A Historical Perspective on Women in the Labor Force 

The history of women in the workforce highlights their resilience and determination, from the early struggles for basic workplace rights to the present-day pursuit of leadership roles. Women have continuously overcome barriers and reshaped the professional landscape. In the early 20th century, most women in the United States did not work outside of the home and had limited education. According to Janet Yellen, previous chair of the Federal Reserve Board, in the 1930s, the number of women who entered the workforce began to grow with participation rates reaching 50% for single women by 1930 and 12% for married women. During this time, it was still the norm for married women to leave the workforce after marriage.  

Between the 1930s and 1970s, women’s participation in the economy continued to rise due to World War II, women's rights movements, and improved educational opportunities. According to Janet Yellen, by 1970, 50% of single women and 40% of married women were participating in the labor force. By the end of the 20th century, women's labor force participation continued to grow, but had not yet reached the same level as men. The labor force participation rate of prime working-age women reached just over 74%, compared with 93% for prime working-age men. Women were increasing their education and joining professions formally dominated by men such as those found in the medical, legal, and education fields. While the gender wage gap began to close, it persisted.   

Current Labor Market Barriers  

Today women play an essential role in our economy. While many women need to work for their economic security, it has also become a cultural norm for most households to have both partners engaged in the workforce. According to the Center for American Progress, the labor force participation rate for prime-age women hit 77%, exceeding the level in 2019 (76%). The COVID-19 pandemic had a negative impact on women in the workforce, but in post pandemic years, women’s employment has seen significant improvement thanks to a strong post-pandemic recovery. Women with children younger than 18 saw an improvement in employment with 993,000 more mothers working in December 2022 than one year prior. Mothers of children younger than age 5 have seen employment levels recover more slowly than mothers of school-age children, with employment standing at just over 99% of the pre-pandemic level. Despite progress, women with minor children at home face reduced employment opportunities, especially those with the youngest children. Gender gaps in employment rates between mothers and fathers remain significant. 

Women still face gender pay gaps despite recent progress, men outearn women within every age group. According to the Center of American Progress, among younger workers, ages 16–24, women’s median weekly earnings are about 8% lower than men’s. The gap is even larger for prime-age workers, with women earning 16% less than men. Earnings gaps are more pronounced for many women of color due to racial bias in the workplace. This wage gap has significant consequences for long-term economic security, contributing to higher rates of poverty in old age, especially for widows, divorced women, or women who never got married. 

The Future of Women in the Workforce 

The future of women in the workforce is promising, as women continue to break down gender barrier and push for ongoing efforts to promote inclusivity. In the last few years there has been a growing emphasis on diversity and companies are recognizing the value of women's talents and perspectives across all industries. Initiatives for equal opportunities, mentorship programs, and family-friendly policies are becoming more prevalent, creating an environment that allows women to grow professionally. 

Remote work has opened more opportunities for women to work from any location giving them more flexibility to seamlessly balance their career aspiration with family life. Women are also obtaining higher levels of education setting them up for leadership positions, higher paying jobs, and roles within male dominated fields. However, barriers still exist including the gender wage gap, stereotypes, and biases. Women must overcome these barriers to create a truly equal workforce. Advocacy for women's rights and ongoing commitment to creating inclusive workplaces will be crucial in shaping a future where women can continue to thrive. The evolving labor market has the opportunity for a future where diversity and gender equality are not just ideals but can be an attainable reality. 

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