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Women outnumber men in the American workforce, for only the second time in history

For just the second time in history, women outnumbered men as the majority of the U.S. paid workforce, buoyed by fast job growth in healthcare and education over the past year, as well as the ongoing tight-labor market.

At first glance, the shift is tiny and easy to miss: Women worked 50.04 percent of payroll jobs in December, up from 49.99 percent the prior month. But the figure reflects a larger, ongoing trend. Of the 145,000 jobs picked up in December throughout the economy, women won most of them - 139,000, according to Labor Department data.

"Why is today a milestone? It's a milestone because it's really heralding the future and not just telling us where we are today," said Betsey Stevenson, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan and an Obama administration economic adviser.

Indeed, women's share of the workforce has been growing steadily for the past few years. Zooming out, looking at all workers, including farm workers and those self-employed, men still outnumber women. But women have been joining the workforce at a faster pace than men since 2018. Economists say this narrowing in the gender gap comes as women have been getting college degrees in larger numbers than men, which has radiated out to the job market as they reach higher ranks in the office.

"As women get into more senior positions, it creates more space to hire more women and brings more equality into management decisions," Stevenson said. "It's one of those things that's self-reinforcing and keeps on going."

Industries that have long attracted larger numbers of women, like education and healthcare, are growing at a much faster pace than male-dominated industries like manufacturing and construction. At the same time, with the unemployment rate hovering at a 50-year-low, just 3.5 percent, all workers have more leverage than ever to to negotiate their own work schedules and salaries, which is often a top priority for parents.

The first time the share of women in the workforce crossed over 50 percent was back in early 2010 in the aftermath of the Great Recession, which was a time of tremendous volatility in the labor market. Men were losing jobs at a much greater pace, as industries like manufacturing and construction struggled. That left more women working while men hoped to return.

Now, there's a more permanent dynamic in play. Women are dominating sectors that are growing the fastest. Health care in particular was one of a few sectors that added more jobs in 2019 than 2018, Stevenson said. Also, jobs in education and health services outnumber jobs in male-dominated goods production sectors; mining, construction, transportation and warehousing saw a slow down in hiring last year. And women still dominate service sector jobs, which is 84 percent of non-farm payroll jobs in the country.

A big difference between now and ten 10 years ago is that women today are getting a boost from technology that has opened the door to jobs that used to be considered men-only. Julia Pollak, labor economist at ZipRecruiter, pointed to transportation jobs: For decades, cab drivers were almost exclusively male. But apps and other platforms help bring women into the driver's seat.

"Women who might have felt less safe as taxi drivers before, waiting around for some man to wave them down, now have the protection of an app where people can be identified if something goes wrong," Pollak said.

Plus telecommuting and parental leave policies are becoming more common in the private sector, as employees are competing to hire and keep talent in this hot jobs market.

Stacey Ferguson, 42, worked in corporate law and government for 10 years before she left to start her own digital marketing company in 2012. A year and a half ago, she took a marketing job that allowed her to work remotely full-time. Ferguson, who has three kids and lives in suburban Maryland, said her entire team works out of the office, which helps cement a culture where "everyone is in the same boat."

That's a stark shift from her time practicing law which wasn't as family friendly, she said. Plus, cultural norms around working from home have drastically changed over the years.

"The biggest thing is the mindset," Ferguson said. "Trying to work remotely ten years ago was received very differently than it is now...There's just a general loosening of the typical corporate guidelines and restrictions."

Liz Cook just nabbed a full-time job in November, working as a data analyst for The Mom Project, which helps women workers find jobs. Cook left her job as a prosecutor in 2011 to spend more time with her children. And until recently, she'd had trouble getting back into the workforce with the gap on her resume, despite having a law degree.

"Perhaps [employers] are more willing to overlook gaps in resumes, or there's a cultural shift and they're more willing to bring moms or women in," said, Cook, 36, who needed to return to work to pay off student loans.

The data on women in the workforce was tucked into an otherwise steady jobs report, as the unemployment rate remained at a strong 3.5 percent, unchanged from November and at a 50-year low. The Department of Labor data showed gains in retail and health care, while mining jobs slipped. Manufacturing jobs, which analysts have been closely monitoring during Trump's protracted trade war, changed little in December.

The December jobs report continued a 10-year streak of strong labor market growth since the Great Recession. President Trump's Director of the National Economic Council touted the continued strong jobs numbers, acknowledging the growth of women in the workforce.

"This stuff will translate in the election, I'm surprised the Democrats are so pessimistic painting a picture of a deep recession," Kudlow said in an interview. "The key point here is 3.5 percent unemployment continues, and that is a very low number historically and shows you still have a healthy economy and healthy job market."

Average hourly earnings rose by a mere 0.1 percent in December, meaning over the past year, wage growth is at 2.9 percent.

Economists say wages are not growing as fast as they should be, especially for those who aren't seeing a boost from state and local minimum wage increases. Many businesses are still pulling back on investment and say Trump's truce with China does little to assuage their anxiety. Plus, Democratic leaders and presidential hopefuls caution that Trump's economic and trade agenda could eventually stymie the growth.

Diane Swonk, chief economist for the accounting firm Grant Thornton, said the disappointing wage growth reflects "an economy where you can get a job, but it's harder to get a raise." Swonk said it's possible wage growth figures for the start of 2020 could be ever harsher because wages for 2019 peaked in February.

Analysts have also been concerned about transportation and warehousing, with transportation in particular affected by the economy's manufacturing slowdown. But those numbers didn't change all that much.

Average monthly jobs gains for all of last year were 176,000, compared to 223,000 in 2018. But Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate, said the decrease shouldn't come as a surprise. December's figures didn't reveal "anything that rocked our world," he said.

"Expansions don't last forever, and this one probably is getting a little long-toothed, but it's not on life support," Hamrick said.

Analysts predicted around 150,000 new jobs for the month and forecast a steady unemployment rate of 3.5 percent. Those estimates were significantly less than the 256,000 jobs added in November, although those figures also accounted for thousands of General Motors workers who returned to the workforce after a lengthy strike.

The jobs figures come as President Trump touts the economy's strength as one of his administration's top achievements. In 2019, the unemployment rate in particular hit lows not seen 50 years. The Dow Jones industrial average has gained about 45 percent since Trump took office, and fears of a recession have largely faded. The Federal Reserve cut interest rates three times last year, helping to sustain an 11-year-old economic expansion. And last month, the United States and China reached a "phase one" trade deal that is set to be signed on Jan. 15.

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The Washington Post’s Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.

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