Going into 2020, the U.S. economy generally seems strong — especially for women, who hold the majority of jobs for the first time in almost a decade. Women held 50.04% of American jobs as of December, excluding farm workers and the self-employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s up from 49.7% just one year ago.
What’s driving the surge in female employment? The two industries that experienced the biggest overall gains, health care and retail, both employ many women and are fueled in part by demand from economically-empowered female consumers, says Amanda Weinstein, assistant professor of economics at the University of Akron.
Meanwhile, as women have gained increased control of spending in American households and entered the workforce over the last century, they’ve helped fuel the rise of the service sector, which includes healthcare, education and retail, all industries with lots of female employment. In turn, services such as daycare, home health care, and food preparation have made it easier for women to join the workforce.
But economists say that this isn’t the entire story, and forces in the workplace and society more broadly are still holding many women (and men) back. Here are three things to know about women in the workforce:
Employed, but with low pay
Many women are working in the service sector, which includes plenty of high-paying professions, like physicians. But Aparna Mathur, the director of the American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Paid Family Leave Project, says that many of this sector’s low-paying jobs, such as home health aides, are predominantly held by women.
Indeed, Mathur says that simply holding a job doesn’t necessarily ensure financial security. While health care costs have risen and there is high demand for workers to care for the aging population, wages for low-paid healthcare workers haven’t risen significantly. That’s due in part to the supply of immigrant workers and a high turnover rate. “These are not long-term careers for a lot of people, so it’s hard to imagine that this would suddenly lead to higher wages for workers in these industries,” Mathur says.
Some economists argue that workers who oversee or care for others, such as teachers and home health aides, are underpaid relative to their societal importance because what they do is viewed as “care work.”
“Historically, we have undervalued care work because it has been seen as very feminine. And we tend to undervalue feminine jobs that involve care,” Weinstein says.
The childcare conundrum
The high number of women in the workforce conceals the facts that the labor force participation rate for many groups of women is still lower than that of men. (The civilian workforce participation rate for prime age workers (ages 25 to 54) was 76.8% for women in Dec. 2019 compared to 89.2% for men.) Meanwhile, women are much more likely to work part time.
Mathur says there’s evidence that more women have been forced to choose more flexible work, which may be part time and closer to home, because they need or are expected to provide care for their families. In part, this may be due to the high cost of childcare. More than 70% of families spend more than 10% of their incomes on care, according to analysis by Care.com.
“We’ve had a decade where women were underemployed relative to men,” says Mathur.
Policies that help families ensure that care is available at home, such as a federal paid leave program, could free up more women to join the workforce, Mathur says.
Weinstein says that reevaluating conventions in the workplace and at American schools could also help women. For instance, the 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. school day and lengthy summer vacations from school may not make sense with two parents working full time.
“We have a society that, in many ways, has not pivoted to support the workforce that we currently have. And we have dual earners,” says Weinstein.
Some men are struggling, too
The increasing proportion of female workers leaves a big unanswered question: what’s happening to the men?
Male participation in the workforce has been generally declining for decades. Although there was an increase in 2019, only 89.2% of men ages 25 to 54 were in the workforce last December, compared to 97.1% in Dec. 1960.
Claudia Goldin, a professor of economics at Harvard University, says that women are reaping the benefits of being more educated than men. However, workforce participation has declined even for men with college degrees. Part of the problem, she says, is that the changing economy is leaving some men behind.
“Some men are not as employable in the old sectors, and they’re not doing a very good job of moving into the new sectors. This is certainly true about the college-educated population,” says Goldin.
In Weinstein’s view, the same stigma that has devalued care work has also discouraged men from pursuing traditionally female professions, even if there are more opportunities there.
“We are starting to see men join some of those jobs, but not at the rate we’re seeing women join male-dominated sectors. Not nearly the rate,” says Weinstein.
Mathur says that men may be struggling to remain in the workforce for many other reasons — including the opiate epidemic and criminal records — and that more research is necessary to determine what’s happening.
“We need to understand better what is driving the decline,” says Mathur. “We look at issues like the opioid crisis, the incarceration rate, is it disability? I think with men, some of these issues will be handled with a tighter labor market. So we are already seeing employers reaching out to demographics they typically haven’t wanted to employ, [such as] people who have a criminal record.”