Is the U.S. Falling Behind on Women in the Workplace?

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.

The reasons for that, Blau and Kahn believe, largely boil down to the family-friendly policies that have been adopted outside the United States. Other developed countries have legislated rules that make it easier for employees to work part-time and guarantee women generous paid maternity leave. They also spend more on government-sponsored childcare, though that appears to have less of an affect on whether women work. If the U.S. were to adopt a similar set of laws making it easier for mothers to get out of the house and into the office, Blau and Kahn estimate that around 82 percent of American women would have been in the labor force in 2010, instead of the 75 percent who actually were.

So has the U.S. just fallen behind the times? Well, maybe not entirely. As Blau and Kahn note, some of these progressive, family-oriented policies might also have unintended consequences that could handicap women in the workplace. Laws mandating generous maternity leave, for instance, might discourage some employers from hiring or promoting young women for fear that they'll be off the job for months at a time. Other research has shown that women who work part-time or take breaks from their careers often suffer professionally as a result. And indeed, Blau and Kahn find that women outside the U.S. are about twice as likely to only work part time as their American peers. They're also much less likely to work as managers or in skilled professions. There's a bit less of a gap when you look at traditionally "male" professions -- a category Blau and Kahn create that nixes nurses and school teachers from the jobs mix -- but U.S. women still excel.


Ultimately, the authors only offer the tentative conclusion that there "may be a trade-off between some policies that make it easier for women to combine work and family and women's advancement at work."

So is the U.S. falling behind when it comes to getting women into the workplace? Yes and no. American women are less likely to work overall but more likely to work in high-level jobs. And that's something worth keeping in mind as we search for ways to make the workplace more female-friendly in the future.