How Will the American Workforce Change?

Experts on race, gender, and labor offer their reasons for optimism and pessimism going into 2016.

Stephen Lam / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

By many measures, America’s workforce is a pretty diverse one: Just about half of all workers are women and around one-third of all workers are minorities (12 percent are black, 6 percent Asian, and 16 percent Hispanic). And the labor force is only expected to become more diverse as the nation moves toward becoming mostly minority, and women increasingly pursue work and careers. By 2020 it is expected that women will represent a bigger share of workers than men.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that all industries or professions are diversifying proportionally. In fact, when it comes to corporate leadership and jobs in the highest-paid industries, there’s shockingly little diversity. In 2015, the share of women leading S&P 500 companies amounted to only 14 percent of all leadership positions, and that figure was lower than it had been the year before 2014; minorities continue to struggle to make gains in areas like medicine and law; and pesky disparities in pay and employment rates do not seem to be going away (if anything they might be getting worse).

We reached out to some of the leading scholars on issues of racial and gender inequality in the workplace and beyond to ask them what developments make them hopeful for the future and what gives them cause for despair. Below are their answers, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film

Reason for despair: The film studios continue to treat women’s under-employment behind the scenes and under-representation on screen as a public-relations inconvenience rather than as an industry-wide myopia stifling their creativity, reach, and credibility. According to the latest Celluloid Ceiling study, women comprised a scant 7 percent of directors and 11 percent of writers working on the top 250 (domestic) grossing films in 2014.  These percentages are below those achieved in 1998 when women accounted for 9 percent of directors and 13 percent of writers.

Reason for hope: Twenty years ago, the public discussion regarding the lack of women working in key behind-the-scenes roles in the film industry was largely confined to a few “special issues” of the trade publications devoted to women working in the business. Today, the number of voices participating in the dialogue has grown exponentially. Hopefully, the current cultural zeitgeist endorsing greater diversity, as well as the EEOC investigation into discriminatory hiring practices, will push the industry into significant and lasting change.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the New America Foundation, and author of Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family

Reason for despair: The principal reason for despair is that the generation in power in this country overwhelmingly thinks of care issues as women’s issues and belittles men who step up as equal parents.

Reason for hope: The principal reason for hope is that the generation that will take power in the next decade or two increasingly thinks of care issues as family issues that are of equal concern to both women and men.

John Henneberger, fair and affordable housing advocate

Reason for despair: I despair over persistent racial segregation and discrimination that deprives the children of low-income people of color a place at the starting line where more privileged Anglo kids begin life. This original sin of the United States renders false our claim that here, "all men are created equal.” After all these years and overwhelming evidence, millions of Americans will not acknowledge the problem, much less agree that we must do something about it.

Reason for hope: Real progress can be made simply by enforcing existing laws. After 50 years of failing to enforce the Fair Housing Act, the Supreme Court this year reaffirmed the law. Federal agencies are making tentative, initial efforts to enforce it for the first time. This is an important step we can take to halt widening inequality in the United States.

Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution

Reason for despair: I have focused much of my attention this year on unplanned births and the promise of long acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) to reduce early, unwed births and the poverty associated with them.  My greatest disappointment is that neither the general public nor many of our elected officials seems to understand the potential of these safe and effective forms of birth control to strengthen families while reducing poverty, abortion, and government costs.

Reason for hope: My hope stems from the fact that younger women are beginning to demand access to LARCs. The proportion of women choosing them has increased from 2 percent to about 12 percent over the past decade, helped in part by their lower cost under the Affordable Care Act, their endorsement by the American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians, and just plain word of mouth.