Women in the workforce: Some progress, but still more likely to be poor

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released a compilation of national data about women in the workforce. But buried in the nearly one hundred pages of data are some nuggets of pure gold for policy wonks.

In general, the data is trending positive. There are more women in the labor force than in decades past, and the wage gap is smaller than it was 40 years ago.  But most of the numbers continue to demonstrate persistent inequalities in the workforce. Here are a few highlights:

  • Overall, women are more likely to work in financial sectors and education and health services, and less likely to work in construction, manufacturing and transportation. Washington women, compared to women nationally, are more equitably represented in construction, utilities, and transportation and warehousing. However, they are less so in other sectors, including information, dentist’s offices, and health and personal care stores.[i]

  • Nationally, women are less likely to be self-employed, 5.2% of women versus 7.6% of men in nonagricultural industries. However, there is a greater proportion of women among the self-employed today than 35 years ago – 38% in 2010 versus 27% in 1976. This is certainly progress, but at this pace it may take until 2025 to see a more equitable gender split between the self-employed.
  • Although women hold about half of U.S. jobs, they are still more likely to live in poverty than men. Across the U.S., 7.5% of women are among the working-poor, compared with 6.6% of men. Poverty rates are highest among younger workers – 17% of women and 12% of men aged 16-24 live below the poverty level. People of color are also more likely to be working-poor. For Black workers aged 16-64, 14.5% of women and 10% of men have earnings below the poverty level.

While progress for women in the labor force is evident, it’s also clear that workplaces are becoming less equitable in certain industries.

Further, the data show women are more concentrated in low-wage sectors – a factor in the increased rate of poverty among working women. As the economy slowly begins to turn around, now is the time for policymakers to accelerate positive changes in labor force standards.

Policies that protect workers are vital in good and bad economic times, but are often most effective in providing a safety net when the economy goes bad. Ensuring workplace equality for all workers will likely offer essential protections to women and their families the next time the economy heads south.


[i] Washington data from U.S. Census Bureau, Quarterly Workforce Indications, 4 quarter average 2010 Q1-Q4. National data from Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Women in the Labor Force: A Databook,” Table 14.

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