Most Americans think of the U.S. as a leader among industrialized nations in providing economic opportunities for women. But this perception is based on the great progress women made in the 1970s and 1980s. Progress slowed in the 1990s, and stalled completely in recent years. As other wealthy nations implemented policies that support working families -- providing paid leaves for workers and investing in child care, for instance -- women in these countries made great strides. In many instances, they have caught up to and surpassed women in the U.S. in terms of labor force participation and employment.
The U.S. was among the leading countries in terms of women's labor force participation for most of the 20th century. After a slow but steady increase over the first three-quarters of that century, women's participation picked up speed and accelerated in the mid-1970s. The increase was most dramatic for women aged 25 to 44, whose labor force participation rate rose from 47 percent in 1970 to 76 percent in 2000.The 'Pill' clearly played an important role, as it gave women control over the timing and number of children they have. But so did government policies that broke down barriers and opened up opportunities for women. Most important in this respect were the 1963 Equal Pay Act, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1972 Title IX Education Amendments which mandated equal opportunity for women in pay, employment and education. The squeeze on working families that lack the flexibility to easily meet family needs has brought home the reality of the huge increase in woman's hours of paid work. Annual hours of work for the typical woman rose from 925 hours a year in 1979 to 1,829 hours in 2007 (before the recession) and 1,664 hours in 2012. For the typical mother, annual hours of paid employment increased from 600 in 1979 to 1,596 hours in 2007 and 1,560 today.
What is rarely noticed, however, is that most of this increase in participation, employment and hours occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. By 1990, 74 percent of women 25 to 54 years of age -- the prime time for both paid employment and motherhood -- were in the labor force. In 2012, more than 20 years later, women's labor force participation was only slightly higher at just over 75 percent after peaking in 2000 at almost 77 percent. Hours of work followed a similar pattern. For the typical woman, hours of paid work had already increased to 1,530 a year by 1989 and peaked at 1,820 hours in 2000; for the typical mother, annual hours doubled to 1,200 by 1989 and peaked at 1,600 in 2000.
In 1990, the U.S. ranked sixth among advanced industrialized nations in the participation of women aged 25 to 54 in the labor market. But while U.S. women's labor force participation rate stagnated after 1990, other advanced industrialized economies experienced marked increases in women's participation in the labor market. In 2010, the U.S. had fallen to 17th out of 22 such countries.
The share of women 25 to 54 years of age who are employed tells a similar story. This ratio peaked in 2000 at 74.2 percent before falling to 72.5 percent in 2007 and 69.2 percent in the second quarter of 2013 -- behind even the employment rate of women in Japan, which reached 70.6 percent in that quarter! Today, the U.S. lags behind not only the Nordic countries but most other advanced industrialized English-speaking nations (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.K.) and the major continental countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland).
New research by Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn points to the lack of family-friendly policies as part of the explanation. As these researchers note, "Unlike the United States, most other economically advanced nations have enacted an array of policies designed to facilitate women's participation in the labor force, and such policies have on average expanded over the last 20 years relative to the United States".
Women's employment increased rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s facilitated by laws intended to guarantee them equal opportunity in wages, hiring and advancement and schooling. However, the laws governing the wage-and-hours regulatory system and the social insurance infrastructure put in place in the 1930s have not been updated to reflect the economic realities of today's workers -- specifically the dual role that most employees play as workers and caregivers. This lack of adaption may be behind the plateau in the labor force participation rates of women and mothers since 1990.
It's past time to update the Fair Labor Standards and Social Security Acts for the 21st century. Today's workers need a minimum number of paid sick days in addition to a meaningful minimum wage. In addition to protections against unwanted overtime hours, they need the right to request a change in their hours of work or schedule without fear of reprisal. Social Security provides income to workers too old to work; it should be expanded to provide family and medical leave insurance when a child is born or adopted or a worker or close family member experiences a serious health problem.
Despite the constraints under which they must function, women make a major contribution both to their families' standard of living and to America's GDP. Updating employment standards to reduce these constraints would benefit both working families and the economy.