The Spectacular Triumph of Working Women Around the World

An appreciation of how far women have come in the world economy -- and how far they still have to go, even in the U.S.615 women china reuters fists.jpgReutersGrowth is complicated. But there are a few easy rules. One such decree is that you cannot expect to have a fully functioning economy if you insist on treating half of your adult population like second-class citizens.

And yet, many countries insist on doing just that with women. Look at Sudan. The nation placed 128th out of 128 countries surveyed by the Economist Intelligence Unit's second annual Women's Economic Opportunity Index, released Tuesday morning. (Sweden was first. We were 14th.)  "Women in Sudan still do not have access to bank accounts or financial services," the authors write, "and are not free to manage their own financial affairs, even when a woman is widowed and left money by her husband." It's not much better in Yemen, 126th on the list, where it is illegal for women to leave the home "without permission from a male family member or an escort."

The triumph of women in the workplace has been one of the great success stories of last 100 years. Remember, in the U.S., it wasn't until 1920 that the states signed a constitutional amendment banning voting discrimination by sex. Less than a century later, the rise of the female worker has added nearly 2 percentage points per year to GDP growth. In Europe, economists estimated that the shrinking gap between male and female employment contributed 25% of Europe's growing wealth in the last two decades. As the Economist once put it: More than China, more than the Internet, and more than banks and central banking, economic growth is driven by women.

And economic stagnation is driven by women not working. One in two prime-age women -- that's 1.5 billion in the world -- are not active in the "formal global economy," according to EIU, which means they're either unemployed or working part-time by cleaning, cooking and selling wares and simple services for petty cash.

The triumph of female employment and opportunity is quite possibly the most important economic story in the world. That was the case before the recession, and it will be true after the recession. Here is a brief global tour of the state of female education and employment. For my roadmap, I'm using recent studies from the Economist Intelligence Unit, Bank of America economist Neil Dutta, and the U.S. Census.

More Graduates. Equal Work. Less Pay.

Screen Shot 2012-03-06 at 4.48.58 PM.pngWe begin our world tour at home. If the downturn was sexist, so was the upswing: Both were biased toward men. In the Great Recession, male employment fell by twice the rate of female employment. But in the recovery, jobs have grown three-times faster for guys. As a result, women have recovered only a quarter of the jobs they lost, while men have filled 40%.

"We attribute this phenomenon to a few factors," writes Neil Dutta, U.S. economists for Bank of America, in the new report Global Girl Power. In a sentence: Male-dominated like manufacturing and mining bounced back, while some female-heavy industries like education and local government shrunk even as the economy accelerated.

For a brief period in the trough, however, women made up a majority of the workforce in the United States for the first moment in U.S. peacetime history. Get used to that picture: You'll be seeing a lot in the future.

American women are well-placed to gain over men in the workforce for three big reasons. First, they earned three out of every five higher-ed degrees awarded in the last 10 years, which suggests they will have an advantage in tomorrow's market. Second, as the economy transitions away from male-heavy construction and manufacturing, guys will have to do jobs today that aren't so muscular. Third, the fastest growing jobs in the next ten years are already dominated by women, especially those in health care.

But when it comes to wages, equality is elusive. In 2009, the median female wage was 77 cents to the median guy's dollar, according to the U.S. Census. Women earned less, on a per-month basis, than men at every degree level. Here's a graph -- please click to enlarge -- of male (blue) vs. female (red) monthly earnings for selected degrees at community college, four-year colleges, and graduate school. As you can see, even if women dominate the number of graduates, men dominate post-graduate wages across the board -- and their lead appears to grow with schooling years.

big education thing.png 
What accounts for this widespread, lingering discrepancy of pay? Barriers to career advancement, family choices, office sexism: All of these play a big role. But there two more economic explanations that I hadn't seen before reading the Bank of America report.

First, many degrees with lower-than-average pay are dominated by females, and many degrees with higher-than-average pay are dominated by men. In 2009, women accounted for 80% of education degrees and 60% of natural science degrees ... but only 40% of business degrees and less than 20% of engineering and computer science degrees. Second, it seems that female workers have clustered in a small set of industries that have grown very quickly, but also tend to pay less. This is also true in Europe, which is next on our worldwide tour.

Just Like the United States. But More So.

Screen Shot 2012-03-06 at 4.50.16 PM.png

In the European Union, as in the United States, women go to school more, earn less, and are scarce at the corporate executive floor. The glass ceiling extends across the Atlantic Ocean.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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