Women's Economic Dominance: Is It Really Inevitable?

Industrial Strength

In other places in her book, Rosin presses the ongoing structural change in the economy in terms of industries (what firms make) instead of occupations (what workers do). Here she is on slightly firmer ground. She writes:

Since 2000, the manufacturing economy has lost almost 6 million jobs... During the same period, meanwhile, health and education have added about the same number of jobs. But those sectors continue to be heavily dominated by women, while the men concentrate themselves more than ever in industries—construction, transportation, and utilities—that are fading away.

In one respect here, Rosin is exaggerating: She is referring to 4.5 million as "about the same number" as 5.7 million. And construction, transportation, and utilities, rather than "fading away," in fact are together projected to produce 2.7 million new jobs from 2010 to 2020, a 26 percent increase.

But she nevertheless makes a true and important point: Those masculinist industries are growing slower than education and health services, which are projected to add 6.5 jobs, a 33 percent increase. During the next decade, BLS projects education and health will grow from 15 percent to 17 percent of the workforce. But outside of that group, there is no relationship between gender and projected growth. Here is the chart:

cohen_post1chart3.png

The blue line shows the relationship with education and health services included—big dots out on the edges have a huge influence on the trend. If you exclude that you get the pink line. Manufacturing is shrinking, but it's already only nine percent of workers, and shrinking to eight percent by 2020. Most of the employment growth is in the integrated industries: retail trade, professional and business services, leisure and hospitality, and government—which affect men's and women's employment. Health and education growth are a big part of our expected future, but they're not the whole economy.

Conclusion

Overall, you might be surprised to learn—I know I was—that women are projected to increase their share of the labor force from 46.7 percent in 2010 only to 47.0 percent in 2020. That's it: less than one percent. How can that be? So many people are so attached to this narrative of women's rapid advance that they haven't noticed there has been no advance in the last 17 years: Women have occupied between 46 percent and 47 percent of the labor force every year between 1994 and 2011.

cohen_post1chart4.png

This stagnation itself complicates a big part of Rosin's and Mundy's narratives. The continuous—and fast—pace of change is why they argue that we are heading not just toward equality but beyond it, to female domination. As Rosin writes:

Yes, the United States and many other countries still have a gender wage gap. Yes, women still do most of the childcare. And yes, the upper reaches of power are still dominated by men. But given the sheer velocity of the economic and other forces at work, these circumstances are much more likely the last artifacts of a vanishing age rather than a permanent figuration.

And, after several paragraphs of statistics comparing the present mostly to the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Mundy concludes: "Given these trends, it is only a matter of time before a majority of working wives outearn their husbands."

But the reality is that it is not only a matter of time. The ostensibly gender-neutral processes of economic transformation are not the source of women's progress they once were. And that's the real danger in their stories: creating the impression that women's progress is inevitable and unstoppable.

Presented by

Philip Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland in College Park.

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