Women Outnumber Men in the US Workforce–What Does it Mean?

January 16, 2020

Katherine Moos discusses December's employment data, which shows that for the second time in history women outnumber men in the U.S. workforce. The first time was during the Great Depression. Women still earn less than men, so by hiring more women employers are saving on payroll expenses.

Katherine Moos discusses December's employment data, which shows that for the second time in history women outnumber men in the U.S. workforce. The first time was during the Great Depression. Women still earn less than men, so by hiring more women employers are saving on payroll expenses.


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Story Transcript

TAYA GRAHAM: Hi. I’m Taya Graham and I’m a reporter for The Real News Network.

It was a milestone that received little attention but could have big implications. For only the second time in the past decade, women outnumber men in the US workforce. In fact, women now represent 50% of the entire population of people who are employed. But what is driving this trend, and what does this historic milestone say about the job market in general? And finally, will this pattern lead to something that has proved elusive for American workers despite years of supposed economic gains, better pay, and working conditions for both men and women?

Bear in mind, the US still maintains one of the worst gender wage gaps in the world, ranking 53rd for pay equity worldwide between women and men, so should we be concerned that bringing women into the workplace in greater numbers is all part of an effort to drive down wages and lower costs?

Well, to help me drill down on what this means and the implications for all workers, I’m joined by professor Katherine Moos. She teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is a member of PERI, the Political Economy Research Institute. She has also won several prestigious awards, most recently the Edith Henry Johnson Memorial Award In Economics. Professor Moos, thank you so much for joining us.

KATHERINE MOOS: Thank you for having me. Pleasure is all mine.

TAYA GRAHAM: So, do you think the increase in the ratio of women in the workforce is an indication of the beginning of an economic crisis? Now, I know that sounds odd, but for example, the first time that women outnumbered men in the workforce was during the Great Depression, and then again in the Great Recession of 2008, so is this change a sign of possible economic crisis?

KATHERINE MOOS: I wouldn’t say that an increase in the ratio of women in the workforce to men is an indicator of an oncoming recession. What I would say is that it is a reflection of deeper structural changes that have been taking place in our economy for some time, as well as persistent sex segmentation in the labor market.

We still have women being segmented into traditionally female type of jobs and men into more male type of jobs, and we’re seeing that there’s an expansion in sectors like healthcare and education and retail, which are traditionally female, and then a contraction or stagnation in some of the male sectors, like mining. We’ve seen a decrease, and we’ve seen no major increase in some other male sectors. So I wouldn’t be interpreting this as an indication of an oncoming recession, more that there are deeper structural changes going on in the economy for some time.

TAYA GRAHAM: You know, it’s interesting that you were talking about industries like healthcare expanding and teaching. During the economic crisis of 2008, more men lost their jobs because of women. Is this because employers are holding onto low-paid workers, most of them women, and then firing more high-earning employees? Is this because employers are retaining low-paid women? Why do you think that’s happening?

KATHERINE MOOS: That can certainly happen within a firm or within an industry, that employers will hold on to the low-wage workers and let go of some of the higher-earning workers, but what we’re seeing in this most recent jobs report is that it’s really happening between sectors, so I wouldn’t interpret it as all of the high-wage workers are being let go so much as evidence that certain sectors are just not growing, and these happen to be the sectors that are traditionally considered male or masculine.

These are the ones that are more prone to outsourcing, whereas things like healthcare and education and retail really have to be done here if we want people to retain the benefits of them. If we want people to be able to hire someone to provide healthcare in their home, they have to be here, whereas some of the more masculine jobs are being outsourced.

TAYA GRAHAM: You know, one of the key takeaways from this economic expansion is that wage growth has been slow despite good jobs numbers. How do you see this playing out for workers in general, especially minimum wage workers?

KATHERINE MOOS: Yes, so we do see in this recent job report that the greatest expansion of jobs is in low-wage jobs, and we see this with increases in jobs in retail, which tend to be low-wage, other lower-paying jobs in the healthcare sector like home healthcare aides, other types of lower-paid healthcare workers, and so of course minimum wage policy will have an effect in the sense that it puts upward pressure on wages overall if we’re able to really secure a decent toolbar in terms of wages.

TAYA GRAHAM: You know, one thing that’s interesting in terms of the recent jobs growth is that women have really been driving these numbers. More women are coming into the job market. What do you think is driving this trend? Like for example, is it technology apps like Lyft that allow women to enter a field that was previously male-only, like cab driving?

KATHERINE MOOS: There is some evidence that women are joining some fields like driving, for example, because they feel more comfortable because of the apps. It may also reflect some changes in what we consider to be a male or a female job. It may no longer be the case that only men drive cabs. Whether or not that has everything to do with the platform or the app remains to be seen, or if it reflects sort of other cultural changes in our society around who gets to drive cabs.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, as women are entering the workplace, how much do you think this has to do with the workplace becoming more flexible? I mean, are women making inroads that are actually changing the nature of the workplace? For example, more people are working remotely now. Do you think this flexibility is because of women and women being in senior positions?

KATHERINE MOOS: I think that increased flexibility which benefits workers, because there’s also flexibility that benefits the employer, flexibility that benefits workers can be a very useful way to attract and retain women workers both in higher-level management positions as well as more junior-level workers. I think one of the constraints for women in the workforce today and for some time is the need to balance bread-winning and caregiving activities.

And I think as our society starts to reckon with this and starts to create policies that really make it possible for people, not just women, people of all genders, to balance their paid and unpaid responsibilities, we will see more women in the workforce. I think more official policies are being put in place that allow people to work from home, to telecommute, to make flexible hours, and these are all a really good thing.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, African-American women have always been part of the workplace and have not struggled to be in the workplace, but instead have struggled to have the economic wherewithal to be able to stay at home with children or as caregivers. Do you think these numbers are any different for them, or basically, what do these numbers mean for women of color?

KATHERINE MOOS: That’s a great question. I think the idea that women are joining the workforce in greater numbers is a really complicated one. In some ways, it might reflect changes in our society. Women have gained greater access to higher education, greater access to jobs. As you say, women of color have always been working. They’ve always needed to earn income as well as do unpaid care work, and so it’s a more complicated story, of course, when you take race into account.

It’s not just the story of female empowerment and getting the corner office, it’s also the story of continually needing to bring home an income to support themselves and their families, and so the fact that there’s growth in low-wage work I think doesn’t bode well for the idea that women of color are necessarily gaining from this. They may just be sort of holding on to the labor force participation they’ve been doing for some time and the need to support their families through their earned incomes.

TAYA GRAHAM: You know, professor, something you touched on earlier was healthcare and education and how they were both big contributors to job growth for women. Are the numbers of women in the job force increasing because of the growth of these industries, or is it more complicated than that? Because some people have argued that there’s sort of like a loss of prestige for, quote, women’s jobs, like elementary school teaching or nursing. Is that why there’s room for growth in these industries, or is it something different?

KATHERINE MOOS: That’s an interesting question. I think that there is growth in these industries. I mean, as the population ages, we have greater healthcare needs. As we make expansions in education, we need to hire more teachers. But I do think that the point about what is the prestige level of these jobs is an important one. I don’t know that there’s a loss in prestige. I think there’s this sort of continual issue in terms of getting the respect and the prestige and the high pay that these jobs really do deserve, so I think it’s more of a persistent problem than losing a prestige.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, here’s my last question for you. The World Economic Forum predicted it would take over one hundred years for the wage gap between men and women to close in the US, so what do you think should be the policy of the US government to improve the score of the US and its ranking in the World Economic Forum so we don’t have to wait another hundred years for parity as the forum predicts? What would you suggest the US government take on this policy?

KATHERINE MOOS: Yes. Well, I’m not willing to wait a hundred years, I think you aren’t either, so I think first, we need to create a lot of policies that will help families balance their bread-winning and caregiving responsibilities. By that I mean major public investments in daycare, in pre-K, in school-aged programs, to help families with children. We need major public investments in care for elderly people, for people with illness, people who are have disabilities, so that women and other people in the family don’t have to drop out of the labor force to care for people in their family. That’s one thing is major investments in things like education and care.

The next would be a set of paid family leave policies that do allow people, men and women, to take time off when they do need to care for themselves or for their families but [inaudible 00:11:15] still able to maintain this income. There should both be care that is provided by the society as well as make it possible to provide it by the family. So those are the first two things. Next, there are some great policies that a number of places have adopted, my home state of Massachusetts being the first, that make it illegal for employers to ask salary history of prospective-

TAYA GRAHAM: Interesting.

KATHERINE MOOS: This is a very important way to level the playing field. If people come in with an work history of lower wages because maybe they’ve been discriminated in the past, or they are leaving a sector of low wages, that former pay shouldn’t follow them, right? So making it illegal to ask prospective employees what their salary history is is a very important policy.

Finally, my final recommendation would be to strengthen the role of unions and collective bargaining. We know that when people are able to bargain collectively, when workers are able to demand better wages, there’s greater parity and greater fairness between men and women and between people of different races when unions are strong and when rights for collective bargaining are strong.

TAYA GRAHAM: Professor Moos, thank you so much for your economic insights. We really appreciate them, and I hope the US government takes you up on some of your suggestions.

KATHERINE MOOS: Thanks so much.

TAYA GRAHAM: Thank you. My name is Taya Graham and I’m your host. Thank you for joining me for The Real News Network.