From the early 1970s to the early 1990s, the U.S. workforce underwent a radical transformation, as women bid goodbye to their roles as housewives and entered the labor market en masse. By the time Murphy Brown started kicking professional ass and taking names during network prime time, females were solidly more likely to be pursuing a career in the United States than in almost any other developed country.
But over the last two decades, the fraction of working women in the U.S. peaked and started to decline. At the same time, much of Europe caught up to, then surpassed us. In 1990, we ranked sixth for women's workforce participation among the 22 countries tracked by the OECD; by 2010, we ranked 17th.
What happened? And are we really falling behind the rest of the developed world, or is the story more complicated? Cornell economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn are out with a new working paper that tries to answer those questions, and their findings hint at both the promise and perils of policies aimed at making it easier for women to enter the working world.
As the graph below shows, women's workforce participation has indeed been fairly stagnant in the U.S. for about 20 years. In most of the developed world, it's been anything but. This isn't just a matter of other countries rapidly making up for lost time. Countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and France have managed to outstrip our growth, even though a large fraction of their women were already working in 1990.