The Gender Gap Series: Working Women- Why the U.S. is Behind : Planet Money When it came to the female labor force participation rate, America used to lead the world. But we've fallen behind. Today on the show: What happened?
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The Gender Gap Series: Working Women- Why the U.S. is Behind

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The Gender Gap Series: Working Women- Why the U.S. is Behind

The Gender Gap Series: Working Women- Why the U.S. is Behind

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: You're listening to NPR.



Hey, everyone. Cardiff here, and we are back with another installment of our week-long series on the gender gap. This is the second episode in our series in which we are looking at the way gender influences price and pay in the economy. And today, we are looking at the trend of workforce participation by women in the U.S. economy. Stick around for an update at the end of the show.


GARCIA: Back in January, THE INDICATOR was in Atlanta for the big annual conference that's put on by the American Economic Association.



This is, like, one of the big - biggest meetings of the year for economists.

FRANCINE BLAU: The - no, not one, (laughter) the. This is it.

GARCIA: Just in case there was any ambiguity there.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: There were 13,000 economists there. You could spot the conference-goers because they were all rushing around in their suits, and they had name tags around their necks on, like, these red lanyards.

VANEK SMITH: And also, you know, you could kind of spot them because they were mostly men.

GARCIA: Dudes.

VANEK SMITH: They were mostly dudes.

BLAU: Economics has been an overwhelmingly male occupation for a long time.

GARCIA: Francine Blau is a female economist at Cornell.

BLAU: I got my Ph.D. in the 1970s. And at that time, I think women were getting about 7% of Ph.D.s (laughter) in economics. And now it's way up there at 35% or something like that.

VANEK SMITH: How many years have you been coming to this conference?

BLAU: Over 40 years. (Laughter) Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Has it changed?

BLAU: Yes. (Laughter) Yes, I mean, it looks so much more (laughter) female than it did then. So I guess it's your standard of reference. But, you know, sometimes now there are lines in the female restroom. (Laughter) And...

VANEK SMITH: Lines for the ladies room, an economic indicator all its own.

GARCIA: Yeah, a sign of progress of sorts.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) This is THE INDICATOR. I am Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. This year, a lot of the discussions at the economics conference were about gender and about the #MeToo movement within economics. But Francine has been studying gender and economics for decades. She's done groundbreaking work on women in the workplace and on the gender pay gap.

VANEK SMITH: But Francine says there is this particular economic indicator that's been on her mind lately. It's the female labor participation rate. Francine says it's been kind of stuck for years now. And after decades of leading the pack, the U.S. has started falling behind.


GARCIA: The labor force participation rate - that is the percentage of U.S. adults within a given age group who either have a job or who don't have a job but are looking for one. So you can break down the labor force participation rate in a bunch of ways, including by gender. And that is what Francine Blau has been doing.

VANEK SMITH: So if you take all the women in the U.S. ages 25 to 54, the percentage of them who are in the labor force is...

BLAU: It's about 75%.

VANEK SMITH: That is today's indicator. About 75% of women ages 25 to 54 in the U.S. are in the labor force.

BLAU: The comparable figure for men would be about 90%.

VANEK SMITH: So 90% of men ages 25 to 54 are in the labor force.

GARCIA: Seventy-five percent does represent a huge gain, by the way. Back in the 1970s, fewer than half of women were in the labor force. That number climbed steadily up and up for decades until about the year 2000. But after that, it kind of flattened off for a while.

BLAU: We've stopped progressing in the U.S. while other countries have continued to see rising female labor force participation. And the U.S. used to have one of the highest female labor force participation rates, and now we have one of the lower ones of the advanced economies.

VANEK SMITH: Denmark, the U.K., Canada, Australia all have higher female labor participation rates than the U.S. In fact, so do China and Thailand. Which leads us to the question, why?

GARCIA: What is going on? Why is the labor force participation rate for women in the U.S. so much lower than it is for men?

BLAU: Well, there's a lot of reasons, but I'd say the major reason is probably the family.

VANEK SMITH: Family. More than 80% of women will become mothers at some point in their lives. And when they do, they hit a bunch of different obstacles in the workforce, the first obstacle being employers discriminate against mothers.

BLAU: There was a fascinating experiment where they sent resumes to employers. And they indicated in the resume that a woman was a parent by saying her extra activity was PTA, whereas they suggested the woman was not a parent by saying her extra activity was a block association, neighborhood associations. And these were just fake resumes that were equally qualified people that the ones that the employers believed were moms got lower callbacks.

VANEK SMITH: And Francine says this did not happen for men. In fact, men tend to see their salaries go up after they have children, whereas women tend to see their pay fall relative to women who don't have children.

GARCIA: So the end result is that it's harder for mothers to get hired. But once they are hired, or if they already have a job when they have a child, they face a different kind of discrimination. Women with kids are less likely to be promoted or to get assigned important projects. This is especially true for women with advanced degrees in high-paying professions like finance. And then there's just the pure home economics of it all.

BLAU: The other thing is child care.

VANEK SMITH: Child care. Francine says the U.S. is one of the only developed countries that does not have free care for young children. As a result, women will often stay out of the workforce to care for their child. Also, men tend to get paid more than women even for the same job. So if there's a man and a woman making this decision together, it often just makes more economic sense for the woman to stay home while the man works.

GARCIA: Then, add to that the fact that the woman is likely to be held back from promotions and bonuses when she does go back to work, and you have a system where a lot of women just choose to stay out of the workforce entirely. Francine says that, to change this, the U.S. could try doing what other developed countries have done - countries like France, Sweden, Germany and the U.K. - and offer state-funded care for young children.

BLAU: I think these initiatives to provide free public preschool care would be very intriguing.

VANEK SMITH: So I mean, I care about this issue because I am a woman. But is this an important issue economically?

BLAU: We talk a lot about economic growth. But one way we grow is really by bringing more and more people into the paid labor force, where they produce items that are counted in gross national product. Also, if you're working within the home, you're producing things of value that aren't counted so that there's a little tradeoff there. But basically, economic growth is furthered by the entry of people into the labor force. But I think the most fundamental thing is by not fully utilizing all the talents of a major segment of our population, we're not fully realizing our efficiency and productivity.

GARCIA: Francine says this is especially true in fields where there aren't many women in the first place, like tech and economics, where a whole part of the population that could be contributing isn't, at least not on the level that it could be.

BLAU: There was a woman who preceded me who I look up to. And I think she was - entered the field in the 1950s. And she said her husband dropped her off at an - American Economic Association meetings. And he said, Carolyn, this is 5,000 men and you. (Laughter) You know, I mean - so it's kind of hard to be - when I was first coming in, it was very hard for me. I was just very small minority, and it just is not hard for me now because there are just a lot more women than there used to be.

VANEK SMITH: And it looks like there will be more. Women ages 25 to 34 have seen a big jump in labor force participation in the last couple of years. Young men, though, have actually seen a decline during that period.

We recently reached out to Francine to see if she had any updates for us. And she told us there haven’t been any major changes to the number of women entering the U.S. workforce since January. But there have been some important updates to the way the field of economics and specifically the American Economics Association is attracting women.

GARCIA: At the end of June, Ben Bernanke, who was then the president of the AEA, sent a letter to members announcing several policies designed to crack down on gender discrimination in the economics discipline. There’s a new harassment and discrimination policy and a new task force that’s reaching out to women in high school and college who might be good candidates to enter the field of economics.

VANEK SMITH: If these policies do what they’re intended to, perhaps at the next AEA conference Francine will experience even longer lines for the women’s restroom.

GARCIA: That’s what matters, folks.

VANEK SMITH: That is the indicator of choice. It’s true. Today’s episode was produced by Rachel Cohn. The original episode was produced Constanza Gallardo. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


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