Women’s Employment Over the Past Century

For Women’s History Month, I’d like to recognize Claudia Goldin, the economic historian and labor economist who has taught us more than anyone else about the female labor force in the U.S. and its evolution over time. 

Goldin’s forthcoming book, Journey Across a Century of Women: The Quest for Career and Family, will be essential reading for anyone interested in studying women’s employment. Here, I provide a quick preview, based on what she has shared with the public so far in articles and lectures, such as in this recent address

Her work shows just how dramatically women’s lives, roles, and aspirations have changed since 1900 and traces this journey in five distinct phases. 

Phase 1: 1900–1919 | Career or Family

Most college-educated women who were young adults between 1900 and 1919 faced a choice between a career and family. They either married and raised children, or never married and had careers—often as teachers or nurses. If they started a career and then got married, they typically ended their careers upon marriage. That’s what was expected.   

Phase 2: 1920–1945 | Job then Family

More college-educated women who were young adults between 1920 and 1945 aspired to have careers, but the Great Depression intervened, causing many to remain jobless in their youth and then move into jobs with less attractive long-term career prospects, before having families later. 

Phase 3: 1945–1965 | Family then Career

The third group, college-educated women who were young adults after World War II, saw a rush of early marriages and a baby boom. Once their children were older and more independent, or once those children left home altogether, many of these women entered the workforce. But it was often too late for them to develop full-fledged careers. 

Phase 4: 1966–1975 | Career then Family 

The fourth group, aided by the birth control pill, was more likely to delay marriage and childbirth while investing in obtaining more education and establishing a career. Women rose to great heights in every occupation and industry. But the delay in having children meant that for many, the biological clock ran out, pushing the share of women who never had children up to 27% from just 18% in the third group.   

Phase 5: 1980–Present | Career and Family 

In the fifth group, which includes women who were young in the 1980s through to those who are young today, women typically aim to have it all—a career and a family—and increasingly, we’re succeeding. Major advancements in fertility technology are making it possible for more women to have careers first and then start families in their late thirties, forties, or even fifties. 

Increased access to high-quality daycare and preschool is making it ever more possible for women to have families and careers simultaneously. And increased access to family leave is allowing women who have children (and their partners) to take some time to bond with their babies and then return to their jobs afterwards, rather than leave their jobs altogether.  

The Covid-19 Pandemic 

The pandemic has disrupted this journey and disproportionately reduced employment among mothers. School and daycare closures have forced millions of parents, particularly mothers, to give up their careers temporarily. There will be long-term consequences for many, in the form of career setbacks, reduced earnings, delayed promotions, and reduced retirement savings. 

But the pandemic is also paradoxically leading to positive workplace changes that benefit women and parents and make it easier for future cohorts to have it all. Covid-19 dramatically increased remote work and will likely do so permanently, thereby addressing what Goldin has identified in her research as the key reason for the persistence of the gender pay gap today—insufficient schedule flexibility. Goldin has written that,

The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who labored long hours and worked particular hours.

The pandemic-induced increases in employer flexibility around when and where work takes place—and the increased adoption of technologies that make such a shift possible—could unleash what Goldin calls a grand convergence in gender roles. That sixth phase in our employment journey could allow us to have it all, but with greater workplace and household acceptance and support, and vastly reduced struggle and stress.  

Written by

Julia Pollak is Chief Economist at ZipRecruiter. She leads ZipRecruiter's economic research team, which provides insights and analysis on current labor market trends and the future of work.

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