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Converging toward equality (When a tipping point disappoints)

The story of women’s employment is not dominance, flipping, or tipping points—it’s convergence towards equality.

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The story of women’s employment is not dominance, flipping, or tipping points—it’s convergence towards equality.

In the first period of the recession, employment rates fell faster for men than for women. And for a moment at the end of 2009, women crossed the 49 percent threshold in their share of one measure of the labor force: the “B-5 series,” or nonfarm payrolls, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It excludes farmworkers and self-employed people, who are mostly men, so it leans more female.

Word spread like wildfire. The Economist was among the first to call it out:

At a time when the world is short of causes for celebration, here is a candidate: within the next few months women will cross the 50% threshold and become the majority of the American workforce.

The New York Times put the trend in global context this way:

Across the developed world, a combination of the effects of birth control, social change, political progress and economic necessity has produced a tipping point: numerically, women now match or overtake men in the work force and in education. … this year, women will become the majority of the American work force.

In the 2009 preface to the Shriver Report (“A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything”), John Podesta wrote that the effort was inspired by:

a major tipping point in our nation’s social and economic history: the emergence of working women as primary breadwinners for millions of families at the same time that their presence on America’s payrolls grew to comprise fully half the nation’s workforce.

Ever since The Tipping Point, no one in the American media wants to miss the next big tipping point. For some reason reporting on demographic trends has been especially susceptible, even though they rarely fit the epidemic model the Malcolm Gladwell laid out — in which small innovations explode out into major trends for unpredictable reasons.

That’s not what women’s employment trend looks like at all. Here is that nonfarm employment series, from 1964 to 2012 (through October):

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The long-run news is the huge increase in women’s share of this labor pool. The medium-run news is the 15 years of stall from 1992 to 2007. The latest news is the increase since 2007, which moderated as women’s job losses partially caught up with men’s. That moment was not a triumphant entry into a new era, but rather a dramatic illustration of the hit men took at the start of the crisis.

In my last post I showed that underlying economic pressure toward women’s employment has cooled since the 1970s. The data give us very little reason to expect a sweeping economic shift that privileges women’s jobs in the near future.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a dramatic story—it’s just a story about convergence toward equality rather than women’s dominance. When I say convergence I mean that two ways: convergence between women and men, and convergence in the pattern across the rich countries of the world. Here is women’s share of civilian employment for the 18 OECD countries with consistent data from 1970 to 2011:

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Women have increased their share in every country. But no country has crossed the 50 percent threshold, and most show tapering or slowing progress as they approach it. Some exceptional countries—especially Spain, Ireland, and Italy—continue to rise quickly, but they were catching up from a low point in 1970. Maybe in next decade or so some of these countries will cross 50 percent, but from the slowing pace of change it doesn’t look like it will be a stampede over the line. In fact, the most dramatic thing about this figure may be the convergence between 45 percent and 50 percent, where 13 of the 18 countries now lie.

Maybe it’s the winner-take-all, 50 percent+1 nature of the American discourse that creates this unhealthy focus on dominance, as if that can be captured by a single indicator passing a 50/50 threshold. 51 percent isn’t an on-switch for social dominance. If we could get out from under these 51 percent-take-all narratives we might be able to appreciate the progress that we have made toward gender equality, and focus on the obstacles that impede further movement in that direction.

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Women’s Economic Dominance: Is It Really Inevitable?

Originally published at TheAtlantic.com.

Both Liza Mundy (The Richer Sex) and Hanna Rosin (The End of Men) argue that the transition to a postindustrial, service- and knowledge-based economy—in conjunction with declining gender discrimination—are leading inevitably to women’s economic dominance. I have critiqued those stories in a series of posts on my site Family Inequality.

But there is one piece of Mundy and Rosin’s argument I haven’t questioned until now. It is so intuitively appealing that I assumed it was true: The demands of the economy are shifting dramatically in women’s favor. Brains have superseded brawn and social skills have become increasingly important, they both claim (and I accepted without thinking much about it) which all favors women over men.

Mundy and Rosin make frequent references to a set of projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), showing that the occupations with the largest expected growth are dominated by women rather than men. But that description is, it turns out, misleading.

Occupations Projected

First, here is how Mundy and Rosin use the BLS numbers. Mundy writes:

Projections made by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that women’s occupations will be favored in the next decade. … All in all, of the ten jobs with the largest projected job growth—nurses, home health aides, customer service reps, food preparation and serving workers, home care aides, retail sales, office clerks, accountants and auditors, nursing units, and postsecondary teachers—nine are majority female.

Rosin uses similar statistics, which have been repeated in reviews like this one in the Chicago Tribune, this one in the Globe and Mail, and blogs like this one at the World Bank. She writes (in a passage approvingly quoted by David Brooks):

The recession merely revealed—and accelerated—a profound economic shift that has been going on for at least 30 years, and in some respects even longer…. Of the fifteen job categories projected to grow the most in the United States over the next decade, twelve are occupied primarily by women.

Okay, here’s the first moment I should have paused. Women are almost half the labor force. So if occupations are “majority female” or “dominated” by women, how different are they from average? Does this really mean the occupational structure really strongly shifting in women’s favor?

The BLS projections are detailed here. They include hundreds of occupations, but they also summarize this pattern for 22 “major occupation groups,” which range in size from 1 million to 23 million workers. I added in the gender composition of each group to show the relationship between gender composition and projected growth.

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As you can see, the female-dominated occupations are projected to grow fastest. For dramatic effect, one might point to the top-right point: healthcare support occupations are 87 percent female and projected to grow 35 percent over the decade. On the other hand there are production occupations: 26 percent female and aiming for a paltry four percent growth. But that would be cherry-picking examples. What the sophisticated reader really wants to know is the overall relationship between gender and job growth. And that is not what it appears.

Here is the same graph, but with the occupation groups shown in proportion to thethe number of workers they represent, and the trendline redrawn to reflect their disparate weights.

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Now the picture is much different. That giant dot on the lower right is 23 million office and administrative support workers – 72 percent female and growing slowly. And near the middle are three large occupation groups that are 40 to 50 percent female, also growing slowly (sales, food preparation and serving, and management). The gender action is all in the occupations that employ a smaller number of people. The big story about growth and gender composition of major occupation groups is not true. (In technical terms, the slope of that line in the first figure is reduced by half when we account for the size of the dots. And in fact the slope would be cut in half again if we just dropped the healthcare support occupations point, which exerts outsized influence as an outlier.)

So how do Mundy and Rosin come up with the dramatic lists of occupations projected to grow the most? The top 10 growing occupations (at the detailed level) are mostly female-dominated. But those occupations made up just 15 percent of the workforce in 2010, and are projected to make up only 17 percent by 2020. The top 15 are projected to increase from 22 percent to just 23 percent of the workforce. The growth in these jobs just doesn’t represent that much of a change for the entire economy.

If occupations aren’t really shifting in women’s directions anymore, we shouldn’t be surprised. In 2001, analyzing occupational trends of the 20th century, David Cotter, Joan Hermsen and Reeve Vanneman concluded:

Change in the occupational structure is not responsible for the continued growth in women’s labor force participation after 1970. That is, it is not the growth of traditionally female occupations that is driving the continuing growth in women’s labor force participation rates in the 1970s and 1980s.

Rather, it was – and still is – the growth of integrated middle-class occupations, and women moving into new occupations, that provide the impetus for women’s increased labor force share. Hard as it is to believe, the overall shift toward traditionally female-typed occupations largely ended by the 1970s. Yes, there are more nurses and home health aides today than there were then, but there are also fewer maids and domestic servants. And although blue-collar manufacturing jobs have continued to decline, truck-driving and construction have not. (I extended their trend through 2010 to check whether this is still true. Women’s share of the labor force would have increased from 38 percent in 1970 only to 41 percent in 2010 based on occupational shifts alone, if the gender composition of each occupation hadn’t changed. That means about 70 percent of the increase in women’s share of the labor force came from occupations becoming more integrated instead of occupations growing and shrinking.)

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 togetherprojected 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:

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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.

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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.

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Family Inequality now on The Atlantic (Sexes)

Starting today, I will have posts on TheAtlantic.com. They will appear in the new Sexes section (to be launched shortly). Today’s first post is temporarily in the Business section, here – where it naturally continues my reading of The End of Men and The Richer Sex: How the fastest growing occupations can be female dominated while the economy is hardly shifting toward women.

For scrapbookers, it’s also on the front of the web site this morning:

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