Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
Women in America couldn’t own and control property until 1849. They weren’t allowed to vote until 1920. Prior to 1965, employers were free to discriminate against women in hiring, pay, and promotion. There has never been a female president of the United States. Yet the past half century has witnessed significant improvement on many economic, social, and political indicators.1
How far has America come toward full inclusion of women? How do we compare with other rich democratic nations?
- Types of jobs
- The second shift
- Men’s embrace of inclusion for women
- Causes of gender inequality
In school enrollment and completion, American women have not only caught up with men but passed them. Figure 1 shows that in college completion equality was reached by the early 1990s, and the gap in favor of women is now as large as the gap favoring men was in the 1950s and 1960s.
This holds beyond college as well. Figure 2 shows that the female share of enrollees in postbaccalaureate programs grew from 30% in the late 1960s to around 60% in the mid-2000s, where it has remained. Even in some traditionally male-dominated fields, such as medicine, women have attained parity or near parity.
The United States isn’t alone. Figure 3 shows the gap between men and women in college completion in the rich democratic nations for which data are available. In all of these countries college completion has been rising for both groups. But the increase has been more rapid among women, and women now are more likely than men — in some countries much more likely — to get a bachelor’s degree.
What explains this? A leading hypothesis is that the structure of K-12 classes favors females, particularly by rewarding the ability to sit still and concentrate for extended periods.2
Among prime-working-age American men, the employment rate has been falling, at a steady pace, since 1970. The story is very different for women, among whom, as we see in figure 3, the employment rate increased throughout the second half of the twentieth century. The causes of women’s growing employment are varied and mutually reinforcing: rising educational attainment, declining discrimination in the labor market and hence growing opportunity for a good job and good pay, technological and social shifts giving women greater control over reproduction, and changes in gender norms.
Figure 5 shows the gap in employment rates between men and women in the US and other affluent democracies. Half a century ago the gap was enormous in some of these countries. In Italy in the early 1970s, about 88% of working-age men were employed, compared to just 27% of working-age women, so the gap was more than 60 percentage points. Today the largest employment gap is a little more than 20 percentage points, and in some of these nations it has shrunk to five percentage points or less.
The trend toward equality in employment rates owes partly to a decline among men, but it is due mainly to rising employment among women, as shown in figure 6. Norms have shifted, so more women want a paying job. Women have more education, so they are better qualified for good jobs. Discrimination has declined, enabling women to access better jobs. And many of these countries now have public programs that make it easier for women to combine employment with family — in particular, a year or so of paid parental leave, public childcare and preschool, and eldercare.
In the United States, the rise in employment among women stopped at the turn of the century. Not only does this break with the long-run trend; it also contrasts with developments in a number of other rich democratic countries, as figure 4 shows. In 2000, the US had the sixth highest prime-age women’s employment rate among these countries. A decade and a half later, it ranked sixteenth. The main reason for this appears to be our shortage of supportive policies.3 Our federal government mandates 12 weeks of unpaid family leave in medium-sized and large firms, and it funds Head Start for very poor families. A few states have paid parental leave policies, and few others have preschool for 4-year-olds. But this puts us well behind many of rich democratic countries.
TYPES OF JOBS
Women and men tend to work in different types of jobs. Social scientists call this occupational sex segregation. A common measure of the degree of occupational sex segregation is the share of women or men who would have to switch to a different occupation in order for each occupation to have the same share of women and men as the overall labor force. Figure 5 shows that the degree of occupational segregation decreased steadily from 1960 to 2000. But it remains high, and the downward trend has stalled since 2000.
There still are many jobs in which women are overrepresented: secretary, childcare worker, dental assistant, receptionist, typist, bank teller, household cleaner, nurse, elementary school teacher, librarian, file clerk, cashier, waiter/waitress. There also are quite a few in which women are underrepresented: carpenter, firefighter, mechanic, airplane pilot, electrician, truck driver, machinist, engineer, farmworker, architect, police/detective, janitor/cleaner, doctor. Part of the reason why this is of interest is because jobs in which women are underrepresented tend to pay more than those in which they are overrepresented.
Women are heavily underrepresented in top-level economic positions, a phenomenon commonly referred to as the “glass ceiling.” In the 500 largest US firms, women held 27% of senior officer (vice president or higher) positions in 2017, up from 9% in 1995. They were 5% of the CEOs, up from less than 1% in 1995. They held 20% of the board director positions in these firms, up from 10% in 1995.4
Figure 8 shows that women’s representation on corporate boards has been rising in recent decades in many of the rich democratic countries.
A key contributor to the rapid rise in some nations is quotas.5 Norway was the first nation to adopt a quota, requiring large Norwegian firms to have at least 40% of their board members as women by 2008. In 2018, the state of California joined this list; it passed a law requiring all companies based in California to have at least one female board member by the end of 2019 and two or three (depending on the total number of directors) by the end of 2021. The share of women on corporate boards in California increased from 15% in 2018 to 32% in 2021. However, in 2022 a state court judge ruled that this policy violates the state’s constitution, so the policy is no longer in effect.6
Women tend to get paid less than men. Figure 9 shows the female/male pay ratio — the earnings of the median woman relative to those of the median man. The ratio held constant at around .60 between 1960 and 1980. Since then it has improved steadily, if slowly. It currently stands at about .84.
Note that this figure is for women and men with full-time year-round jobs. The gap would be larger if part-timers were included, as women are more likely to work part-time jobs.
The pay gap has a number of causes.7 Men average more hours of work per year than women, even among persons employed full-time year-round. More women than men take large chunks of time out to care for children (or other family members), which reduces their work experience, which limits their pay. The pay ratio among similarly-educated young women and men is about .93, but women later fall farther behind in part because they’re much more likely than men to interrupt their work career for family reasons.8 Women and men tend to work in different types of jobs, and female-dominated jobs tend to pay less than male-dominated ones, as we see in figure 10. One reason for these differences in pay across jobs with roughly similar skill requirements is discrimination.
A final contributor to the female-male pay gap is the overall degree of pay inequality. Imagine two countries with similar gender differences in productivity, similar degrees of occupational sex segregation, similar gender differences in union membership, and similar degrees of gender discrimination in pay. They might still have very different gender pay gaps depending on the overall degree of earnings inequality in the economy. For instance, if airline pilots earn about the same as real estate agents in one country but much more in the other, similar degrees of occupational sex segregation will yield different gender pay gaps. How far apart the rungs on the ladder are might matter as much or more than where the median woman stands on the ladder.
We can see the influence of this last factor when we compare across the rich democratic nations. Figure 11 shows that despite significant progress in the 1980s and 1990s, the United States has a larger pay gap than most of the other countries. This is partly because the rungs on our pay ladder are farther apart than elsewhere.9
Why has the pay gap shrunk since 1980? To some degree, this was a function of women’s rising educational attainment, their movement into traditionally male-dominated occupations, and declining pay discrimination. But a key cause was stagnation in male pay, as we can see in figure 12.
Another indicator of inclusion is safety from sexual assault and other types of violence. As the revelations from the “MeToo” movement suggest, sexual misconduct by men against women remains far too common. Unfortunately, we have no reliable over-time data to give us a sense of whether there has been progress in this area or not.
We do have data on rape that go back at least several decades. Figure 13 shows data from victimization surveys. They suggest a decline since the early 1990s. We also have data from police reports. They go back farther in time, but they are less reliable because many rapes aren’t reported. They too suggest a reduction since the early 1990s, though to a level that remains higher than half a century ago.
Figure 14 shows victim reports of domestic violence — “intimate partner violence” with female victims. Worldwide, approximately one in four women are victims of domestic violence.10 In the United States, just half a century ago women could not press charges of rape against their husbands in most states. Since the early 1990s, according to the data, the incidence of domestic violence has fallen sharply.
Figure 15 shows the gap in life expectancy between men and women. Here, as with education, women have an advantage; they tend to live longer than men in all of the affluent capitalist democracies. The magnitude of the difference has ebbed and flowed over the past sixty years, but it remains substantial, averaging four to five years in these countries.
Figure 16 shows the gap in subjective well-being between men and women. The measure is from a question the World Values Survey has asked regularly since the early 1980s: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole?” Respondents answer by choosing a value between 1 and 10, with larger numbers indicating greater life satisfaction. In most countries there is little difference between men and women, but if anything women tend to be happier than men, and that has been true throughout the past four decades.
Figure 17 shows the share of women and men in the United States who say they are very happy. Here too we observe a slight advantage for women. On the other hand, women’s self-reported happiness has decreased since the 1970s.
THE SECOND SHIFT
One hypothesis about why American women’s happiness has decreased despite significant advances in education and the labor market suggests that as women’s time in paid work has increased sharply, their husbands/partners haven’t sufficiently picked up the slack at home.11 Figure 18 shows trends in housework by women and men. The gap closed significantly between the mid-1960s and 2010, which is inconsistent with the hypothesis. However, the story is different for housework plus childcare hours among married mothers and fathers, as we see in figure 19. Here the downward trend among women ended in the mid-1970s. Since then there has been no further drop, and mothers continue to do much more second shift work than fathers.
Another possibility is that women, to a greater extent than men, feel conflicted by competing cultural models that hold out devotion to work and devotion to family as the highest ideal.12
Some “female” characteristics seem well-suited for top political decision-making positions: empathy, listening, willingness to compromise. However, women are underrepresented in top elected political positions in the United States. As figure 20 shows, there has been significant progress since 1990, but the level remains fairly low. That’s made clear when we compare across countries. Figure 21 shows that the US lags behind nearly all other rich democratic nations in the share of legislative seats held by women.
Why is women’s share of parliamentary seats in the United States comparatively low? It isn’t because American women are more likely to lack education and professional experience, the standard credentials for elective office. Nor is it because Americans are more biased against women in politics.
One key cause is our winner-take-all single-member-district electoral system. Most other rich democracies have elections in which voters cast ballots for parties rather than candidates, with each party getting seats in the legislature in proportion to the share of the votes it receives. Given that many voters still aren’t fully accustomed to women as major elected politicians, it is easier for a woman to gain office via a party list than via US-style candidate-centered winner-take-all elections.13
A second key cause is quotas that major parties in some countries have adopted. This is a straightforward way to increase the number of women on party lists, and thus an effective way to increase the number who gain seats in parliament.14
It’s very unlikely that the United States will change its electoral system or that either of our two major parties will adopt quotas, so women’s progress in getting into top elected political positions might continue to be slow.
But maybe not. As figure 22 shows, in 2018 and again in 2020 there was a surge of women nominees for House of Representatives seats in the Democratic Party. And in 2020 something similar occurred among Republicans. As a result, we see in figure 15 a sharp rise in the rate of increase in recent years.
MEN’S EMBRACE OF INCLUSION FOR WOMEN
What does public opinion data tell us about the degree to which men embrace inclusion for women? Figure 23 shows five indicators of men’s attitudes. All but one suggest progress.
Nearly all men say they would vote for a qualified woman for president, a sizable increase from the early 1970s. (It’s worth noting, though, that in the 2016 election only 41% of men voted for Hillary Clinton, compared to 52% of women.) In the mid-1970s only 30% of American men disagreed that “it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” Now two-thirds do. About two-thirds agree that “because of past discrimination, employers should make special efforts to hire and promote qualified women,” up from around half in the 1990s. And nearly half of men say abortion should be legal no matter why the woman wants it, up about ten percentage points since the 1970s. The only exception to the pattern of growing embrace is a question asked four times by the World Values Survey. The share of American men disagreeing that “when jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women” has fluctuated since the early 1990s, possibly decreasing but more likely holding constant.
Figure 24 allows us to see how the attitudes of American men compare to those of their counterparts in other affluent nations. The picture isn’t especially flattering. American men are among the least likely to say an essential characteristic of democracy is that women have the same rights as men, to disagree that men should have more right to a job when jobs are scarce, and to disagree that a university education is more important for a boy than for a girl.
CAUSES OF GENDER INEQUALITY
What explains the similarities and differences between women and men in schooling, jobs, pay, politics, and other outcomes?15
One hypothesis focuses on the preferences of females and males regarding what type of career to pursue and what skills to obtain.
Differential socialization of girls and boys can cause differing preferences for types of work, leading females and males to make different schooling and career choices. There is only a weak relationship between young people’s occupational aspirations and the occupations they actually end up in as adults.16 Yet socialization may lead girls and boys to choose particular educational tracks — boys in math and science, girls in literature — that limit their career choices in adulthood.
If differential socialization of girls and boys plays a role in causing different choices about careers, a straightforward corrective is for families and societies to raise children in a more gender-neutral manner. The women’s movement and changes in gender norms since the 1960s have led many parents and teachers to do just that, which may be part of the reason why inequality between women and men in jobs and pay has declined. Then again, women’s employment was increasing prior to this shift in parenting.
Another explanation suggests that differing choices about schooling are rational responses to the fact that women are more likely to want to become a part-time or full-time homemaker. Knowing they will be out of the labor force for some time, women make fewer investments in education and skill development (human capital), which leaves them less qualified for high-paying jobs.17 Although surely important historically, it’s unclear how much this matters in the contemporary context, given that for more than two decades women have tended to get more education than men rather than less.
Biological explanations suggest that differing preferences of women and men stem from genetic differences. On average, women have better memory for details, proximal senses, fine motor skills, verbal skills, and interpersonal skills, while men have better spatial perception, sense of direction, and math skills and are more aggressive and have greater physical strength.
Differing preferences probably do matter for the gender pay gap. In the United States, a typical woman currently gets paid about 84% as much as a typical man. If we look early in people’s careers, this gap is much smaller. It grows over time in part because women are more likely to take time out of paid work in order to have children and care for them, and also to care for other family members such as an aging parent.
At the same time, if there is a strong difference in preferences, with men more likely than women to value paid work and high earnings, why are women now more likely than men to get a college degree and to enroll in graduate schooling?
Skills (human capital) surely help to account for the steady rise in women’s employment beginning in the middle of the 20th century. On the other hand, given that female educational attainment has continued to rise in recent decades, this probably doesn’t help us in understanding why the employment rate among women has stalled since 2000. Indeed, if human capital is so important, why have men’s median earnings been flat not only in recent decades but since 1970? Men’s college graduation rate has fallen behind women’s, but it has nevertheless been rising.
Other explanations turn the focus from differing preferences to societal obstacles.
One emphasizes discrimination by employers. Several types of evidence suggest that this matters. The first is statistical evidence. Even after controlling for education, training, years of work experience, and time off the job, part of the pay gap between women and men cannot be accounted for. Second, lawsuits filed against companies sometimes reveal direct or indirect evidence of gender discrimination. A third type of evidence comes from auditing studies in which similarly-matched pairs of women and men apply for jobs. These studies frequently yield evidence of differential treatment. A fourth type is blind auditions. Symphony orchestras now hide candidates who are auditioning behind a screen to prevent the judges from knowing anything about the identity of the candidate. This tends to significantly increase the probability that a woman will be hired.18
Why would employers discriminate against women? After all, companies presumably benefit from hiring the most capable people, regardless of their sex. One reason is traditional or sexist beliefs about appropriate gender roles. Some men continue to think that women belong at home or are less capable in the workplace.19
A second reason is employers’ reliance on statistical averages. There is an inherent degree of ignorance in the hiring process: it’s hard to know for certain who is going to perform best in a particular job. Given multiple roughly equivalent applicants, the best anyone can do is to make an educated guess. Employers sometimes make assumptions based on (assumed) average capabilities or behaviors of women and men and use these assumptions in choosing who to hire. One such assumption is that women are more likely to leave their job periodically to have children or care for other family members. Another is that men are better at managerial tasks. Treating individuals differently on the basis of group averages is called “statistical discrimination.”
A third reason why firms may discriminate is that people tend to feel more comfortable with others like themselves. Men tend to feel more comfortable around other men, and many of those making hiring decisions, particularly for high-paying jobs, are men.20
Fourth, companies may believe their customers or employees prefer a certain sex. Until the early 1970s, for example, airlines refused to hire male flight attendants because they felt their passengers preferred stewardesses. The Supreme Court declared this illegal in 1971. Firms have long believed that customers prefer male salespersons, though this has changed in recent years.
There is no question that historically discrimination played a key role in limiting women’s access to schooling, jobs, and good pay. It may still matter, especially when it comes to women reaching the highest positions within firms, such as corporate board positions. Yet a discrimination-based explanation has trouble explaining the over-time pattern in educational attainment. It’s also not clear how such an explanation could account for the flattening out of women’s employment since 2000, as it’s very unlikely that discrimination has increased in recent decades.
Another barrier to women’s advance is a range of actions by men sometimes grouped under the term “patriarchy.” This view suggests that men in various positions in society — husbands, workers, legislators, employers — combine (unconsciously) to keep women in a subordinate position. In the late 1800s and early 1900s male-dominated craft unions barred women, thereby keeping them out of certain types of jobs. Male politicians in the US (unlike those in other developed countries) have been unwilling to provide significant government funding for childcare or paid maternity leave, thereby discouraging at least some women from working outside the home. And boyfriends and husbands may discourage women from pursuing a career, or an especially demanding one. Men are less likely to want a date with a woman who is more intelligent or ambitious than they are. Becoming a chief executive or winning election to political office increases the likelihood that a woman will subsequently get divorced.21
Another hypothesized obstacle to women is capitalism as an economic system. Capitalism encourages employers to try to figure out ways to divide their workforce in order to weaken employees’ power, allowing firms to make more profit. Historically there is abundant evidence suggesting that employers have utilized ascriptive characteristics — gender and race, in particular — to try to discourage workers from unionizing or acting with a single voice. This may well help to explain differential outcomes in education versus the labor market. Women have passed men in college completion, yet their employment rates, median pay, representation in top positions in firms remain below those of men.
At the same time, an explanation that blames capitalism runs into trouble when we look at other rich democratic capitalist nations. The female-to-male pay gap is fairly large in the United States, but it’s been decreasing in all of these countries and is now quite small in Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and some others. Similarly, while women have made limited progress in getting into corporate board positions in the US, they’ve gotten close to parity in nations such as Norway, Sweden, and France.
The United States has made considerable strides toward inclusion of women. Women have caught up to men and surpassed them on most measures of educational attainment. Occupational sex segregation has decreased, as has the gender pay gap. More male partners and spouses are contributing to housework and child care. Women’s share of high-level elected political positions has been rising. Sexual assault has been falling.
Yet we remain a good distance from full inclusion. Occupational sex segregation appears to have stalled since the turn of the century. While women have made inroads in high-level corporate positions, they are still far underrepresented. Women’s movement into paid work has meant an increase in their average hours spent on paid work plus “second shift” work, which may have contributed to a decline in average happiness. The gap in elected political positions has diminished, but it’s still quite large, and Americans have yet to elect a female president.22 And sexual violence and misconduct against women are still too pervasive.
- Claudia Goldin, “The Quiet Revolution That Transformed Women’s Employment, Education, and Family,” American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings, 2006; Maria Charles, “A World of Difference: International Trends in Women’s Economic Status,” Annual Review of Sociology, 2011. ↩
- Hanna Rosin, “The End of Men,” The Atlantic, 2010. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Employment,” The Good Society; Kenworthy, “Early Education,” The Good Society. ↩
- These data are from Catalyst, catalyst.org. ↩
- Mensi-Klarbach, Heike and Cathrine Seierstad, “Gender Quotas on Corporate Boards: Similarities and Differences in Quota Scenarios,” European Management Review, 2020. ↩
- Bryce Covert, “The Secret to Getting More Women on Corporate Boards,” Politico, 2022. ↩
- Sophie Ponthieux and Dominique Meurs, “Gender Inequality,” Handbook of Income Distribution, 2015; Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, “The Gender Wage Gap: Extent, Trends, and Explanations,” Discussion Paper 9656, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA), 2016; OECD, The Pursuit of Gender Equality, ch. 12. ↩
- YoonKyung Chung, Barbara Downs, Danielle H. Sandler, and Robert Sienkiewicz, “The Parental Gender Earnings Gap in the United States,” Center for Economic Studies, US Census Bureau, 2017; Claudia Goldin, “How to Win the Battle of the Sexes Over Pay,” New York Times, 2018. Some have speculated that because of their household responsibilities, women exert less effort on the job, but studies of work effort don’t support this. Gary Becker, “Human Capital, Effort, and the Sexual Division of Labor,” Journal of Labor Economics, 1985; England, Comparable Worth. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Inequality and Sociology,” American Behavioral Scientist, 2007, figure 1. ↩
- Lynnmarie Sardinha, Mathieu Maheu-Giroux, Heidi Stöckl, Sarah Rachel Meyer, and Claudia García-Moreno, “Global, Regional, and National Prevalence Estimates of Physical or Sexual, or Both, Intimate Partner Violence Against Women in 2018,” The Lancet, 2022. ↩
- Arlie Russel Hochschild with Anne Machung, The Second Shift, Viking, 1989. ↩
- Mary Blair-Loy, Competing Devotions: Career and Family Among Women Executives, Harvard University Press, 2003. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy and Melissa Malami, “Gender Inequality in Political Representation: A Worldwide Comparative Analysis,” Social Forces, 1999. ↩
- Aili Mari Tripp and Alice Kang, “The Global Impact of Quotas: On the Fast Track to Increased Female Legislative Representation,” Comparative Political Studies, 2008; OECD, The Pursuit of Gender Equality, ch. 14. ↩
- Paula England, Comparable Worth: Theories and Evidence, Aldine de Gruyter, 1992; Barbara Reskin and Irene Padavic, Women and Men at Work, Pine Forge Press, 1994. ↩
- Jerry Jacobs, Revolving Doors: Sex Segregation and Women’s Careers, Stanford University Press, 1989. ↩
- Gary Becker, Human Capital, 3rd edition, University of Chicago Press, 1993; Solomon William Polachek, “Occupational Self-Selection: A Human Capital Approach to Sex Differences in Occupational Structure,” Review of Economics and Statistics, 1981. ↩
- Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse, “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of Blind Auditions on Female Musicians,” American Economic Review, 2000. ↩
- Support for this view can be found in the Bible’s New Testament: “Let a woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (1 Timothy 2:11-12). Similarly, a Japanese proverb decrees that “For a woman to rule is as for a hen to crow in the morning.” ↩
- Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Men and Women of the Corporation, Basic Books, 1977. ↩
- Raymond Fishman, Sheena S. Iyengar, Emir Kamenica, and Itamar Simonson, “Gender Differences in Mate Selection: Evidence from a Speed Dating Experiment,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2006; Sendhil Mullainathan, “The Hidden Taxes on Women,” New York Times, 2018; Olle Folke and Johanna Rickne, “All the Single Ladies: Job Promotions and the Durability of Marriage,” unpublished, no date. ↩
- Hillary Clinton got the most votes in the 2016 presidential election. She lost due to the Electoral College. ↩