I had a great visit at the University of Pennsylvania the other day, and gave a talk titled, “What Happened to the Gender Revolution?” It was an elaboration of the op-ed I wrote last fall, in which I sketched out the stall in progress toward gender equality (a recurring theme, not my discovery) and offered some ideas about getting it moving again.
One objection I got during the talk (rather belligerently, from Herbert Smith) was that I was making a big deal out of women’s labor force share peaking at just under half the total, which is a natural place to peak and so we shouldn’t expect it to keep going up.
My first response was that the feminism-has-gone-too-far gang (Hanna Rosin, Kay Hymowitz, Christina Hoff Sommers, etc.) complains as if women’s progress has already shot past 50/50. Although it hasn’t on almost all measures, there’s also no reason why women couldn’t become dominant. Judging from history, one gender dominating the labor market is hardly an impossibility. So women’s labor force share tapering off as it approaches 50% shouldn’t be considered a natural phenomenon.
But second, and for this I blame my presentation, women’s share of the labor force isn’t the best measure because it depends also on men’s labor force participation, too, which has been falling since the 1960s. So maybe it’s best to focus on women’s participation rates instead (it is on this measure that the U.S. has slipped behind many other rich countries).
Here are the labor force participation rates for women by age, education, race/ethnicity, and marital status, from 1962 to 2013, from the Current Population Survey, with men for comparison. The dots show the peak year for each trend (click to enlarge).
Women’s overall share of the labor force hit 46% in 1994, and has spent the last 20 years within a point of that (as both men’s and women’s rates fell). But if you look at all these groups it’s clear that doesn’t represent the simple slide of women into the home plate of equality. Every line here rose for decades before hitting a peak between 1996 and 2001. And they peaked at different levels: Women with BA degrees peaked at 85%, Black women peaked at 80%, Hispanic women peaked at 68%. Married women peaked at 75%, single women at 82%. And so on.
Maybe all these trends are not being driven by the same underlying forces. But I’m pretty sure it’s not a complete coincidence.