Wow – I hadn’t seen this graph before, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ March 2011 report, Women at Work.
Since 1999, every one of these countries has seen an increase in women’s labor force participation except the United States and Japan:
The U.S. still has a relatively high rate — but it’s now only fourth highest out of these eight countries (here is the data table).
This reminds me of a quote from a 2006 New York Times article, when the paper first reported: “Stretched to Limit, Women Stall March to Work.” They wrote:
Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University, said … that the [stalled] trend across nearly all groups of women had “led many to wonder if a ‘natural rate’ of labor force participation has been reached.”
I think the pattern in this figure belies the “natural rate” idea. Canada and the Netherlands, for example, plowed right through the U.S. peak level. To me this looks more like there are institutional constraints that place a context-specific ceiling on women’s employment — constraints such as inadequate access to childcare, inordinate time-demands on professional workers, and the unequal distribution of unpaid work obligations.