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Women in the Workforce: What Changes Have We Made?

12/19/2013 11:24 am ET | Updated Feb 18, 2014

You'd think things have changed since 1970, but you would be surprised at how much remains the same, according to data from the Census Bureau. The Bureau compiled an infographic (included below text) examining data on women in the workforce, and though some of the numbers show that women have made significant gains, others point to the work we still have to do.

In terms of sheer numbers, women's presence in the labor force has increased dramatically, from 30.3 million in 1970 to 72.7 million during 2006-2010. Convert that to percentages and we find that women made up 37.97 percent of the labor force in 1970 compared to 47.21 percent between 2006 and 2010. Women have also made significant gains in certain occupations: 1970 Census data showed very little participation from women as accountants, police officers, lawyers and judges, physicians and surgeons, and pharmacists. However, the 2006-2010 data shows women making gains, including a strong presence -- 60 percent -- as accountants.

However, there are aspects of the workforce where growth has slowed. The Bureau reports that the largest gain in women's participation in the workforce happened between 1970 and 1980 and has since slowed down, averaging an increase of only 0.4 percentage points between 2000 and 2006-2010. That's compared to a growth rate of 4.3 percentage points at its peak in the 1970s.

Women also continue to be overwhelmingly employed in certain occupations that have been traditionally oriented toward women. Women make up 96.3 percent of dental assistants, for example; 95.9 percent of secretaries; and 91.2 percent of registered nurses. It is within the occupational standings where we see the least change in our workforce over the past 40 years. The leading occupations for women in 1970 were secretaries, bookkeepers, and elementary school teachers. In 2006-2010, the leading occupations were secretaries and administrative assistants, cashiers, and elementary and middle school teachers. Some of this is numbers-driven: there are many more jobs available for elementary and middle school teaching positions than there are for surgeons, for example. Yet there are careers with similar numbers of job openings in other occupations that may not be for women traditionally. The problem is that there doesn't seem to be any movement among occupations based on gender for both men and women. Men are holding on to the same types of jobs they had back in 1970: the leading occupations then were miscellaneous managers, truck drivers, and production supervisors. Today, they are truck drivers, miscellaneous managers, and freight, stock, and material movers.

A big part of this is our own culture, which hasn't changed very dramatically, according to Norma Carr-Ruffino, an expert on women in management who has taught at San Francisco State University's College of Business. She has also authored multiple books on women and diversity in the workplace. "The culture is important and it affects corporate culture," she said. She noted that the change in terms of women's participation in the workplace began in the 1970s when a single-income household could no longer support a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. "It's not so much that opportunities opened up for women but economic need" that drove women to work, she said. But just because women were now in the workforce did not mean that all avenues were open to them. It is here that Carr-Ruffino credits affirmative action for helping to push the boundaries of what was culturally acceptable. She noted that affirmative action forced people to "experience women and minorities in roles that they thought they could never be good at." And that forced experience began to change a cultural mindset.

However, the change is happening very slowly and, as Carr-Ruffino notes, not across the board. "It's what I call pockets of traditionalism," she said, "and we find that not only in geographical locations but in certain kinds of industries." She added that the automobile industry for example, is only now seeing its first female CEO in Mary Barra, who will take the helm at General Motors. Silicon Valley isn't an exception to a lack of women, either: Marissa Mayer caused a stir by first becoming CEO of Yahoo!, and then by simply being a woman in a position of power: everything from her pregnancy and giving birth to her policies for employees were under scrutiny. And let's not forget Sheryl Sandberg, who started the Lean In conversation back in March. The focus of her book is on empowering women to be ambitious and to not succumb to some societal understanding of what women need to do. Arguably the book is written from a very privileged perspective, one that does not fully incorporate race and socio-economic factors in its analysis.

The above examples however, are of women who have succeeded in their chosen careers and are doing well. For many others, discrepancies in wages and occupation segregation continue to be the reality. The most recent numbers show that on average, women earn $0.77 for every dollar earned by men. This may not be true for all women and certainly would depend on sectors and occupations. Nonetheless, the discrepancy exists and must be addressed.

Carr-Ruffino believes that it's good to pay attention to issues that women are facing, yet she questions why we're having the same conversation in 2013 that she had back in the 1970s. She noted that one aspect of this conversation that women continue to face is work-life balance, as evidenced by a much talked about article by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic. Carr-Ruffino notes that we won't stop having this conversation until our cultural understanding of the role of mothers and fathers changes. "I would like to see the culture move to a place where the fathers could be as responsible [as mothers] so it wouldn't be such an expectation that the mothers have the primary responsibility [for child rearing]," she said.

Equal Employment Opportunity Tabulation infographic image [Source: U.S. Census Bureau]