Equal opportunity unemployment

For the first time since the women's movement began, an economic recovery has not led to a higher percentage of women in the workforce.

Published July 22, 2008 5:30PM (EDT)

Today's New York Times has an interesting piece about the effect that the economic slowdown is having on the share of American women who are in the workforce. "For the first time since the women's movement came to life," says the article, quoting the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "an economic recovery has come and gone, and the percentage of women at work has fallen, not risen." To be more precise, the percentage of women holding jobs in their "prime working years" -- ages 25 to 54 -- peaked in early 2000 at 74.9 percent just as the technology investment bubble was about to burst. This June, it was 72.7 percent -- "a seemingly small decline," says the Times, "but those 2.2 percentage points erase more than 12 years of gains for women."

Interestingly, it took researchers a while to figure out that this actually was a trend. At first, some suggested it was simply because the women decided they'd rather be at home -- "to raise children or because their husbands were doing well or because, more than men, they felt committed to running their households," the Times suggests. But nope. According to a congressional study being released Tuesday, researchers now blame something different: "downturns, layoffs, outsourcing, stagnant wages or the discouraging prospect of an outright pay cut." Like men, many women are responding by dropping out of the workforce for a while -- which, to me, at least, isn't that surprising.

The most controversial idea put forth by the article -- and the one I'd like to get readers' thoughts on -- is that this trend is partially a result of women being more sensitive to wage stagnation than men. As the Times explains, in the 1990s, steadily rising pay resulted in women continuing to move into the workforce. Now, however, women's median pay isn't just stuck, it has fallen -- to $14.84 per hour in 2007 from $15.04 in 2004, adjusted for inflation. (Trolls take note: The comparable wage for men today is still $2 more.) Here's the controversial idea: Since a falling median wage is a relatively new experience for women, they may be "even more reluctant than men to accept declining wages" (so says Nancy Folbre, an economist at the University of Massachusetts).

So what are your thoughts? Are women dropping out because they've gotten spoiled? Is it because women, more so than men, are balancing work and family obligations -- and wage stagnation can make the equation come out in favor of staying home? Is it for a different reason entirely? Without ranting (if possible), tell us your thoughts.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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