Women's Social & Economic Gains Slowing In The 21st Century, According To New Study

Last week marked the 96th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote. Women have made enormous strides since 1920, but true equality — economic, political, social — is still a work in progress. In fact, research suggests that women’s social and economic gains have slowed in the 21st century. The new issue of RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences features research from a number of scholars in sociology, economics, and political science, revealing that progress toward gender equality for American women has slackened in recent years.

There’s no denying that women have made huge progress toward equality in the last century. As journal editors Martha J. Bailey and Thomas A. DiPrete point out in their introduction to the volume, in 1950, women made up less than a third of the U.S. labor force; now nearly half of U.S. workers are female. Women in 2016 are more likely than men to earn college degrees. The wage gap has also narrowed considerably, with women earning approximately 80 cents for every man’s dollar today, compared to only 60 cents fifty years ago

But although the changes for women in the labor force have been significant, Bailey and DiPrete say that “women's progress has slowed or stalled” in recent years. Women are still very scarce in top leadership positions (Fewer than 10 percent of people on corporate boards are women, and women make up less than 2 percent of CEOs). They continue to be significantly less likely than men to go for degrees in engineering, physical science, or economics (and their rates of entering these fields have stayed steady for two decades), and women are still vastly outnumbered in STEM fields.

There are number of ways that one can measure women’s social and economic progress, but, as Bailey and DiPrete suggest, perhaps the simplest place to start is with the wage gap. The gap may have narrowed since the 1960s, but that narrowing has stalled over time. The gap closed most quickly in the 1980s (due to an influx of women in the workforce), but since 1990, the convergence of male and female earnings has been much slower. Now, women make 78 percent of what men do annually and 83 percent of what men do weekly. That’s only a gain of 3 percentage points since 2004.

There are a wide variety of factors that contribute to the wage inequality between men and women. It’s more complex than men simply earning more than women for the same job; a complex web of social and cultural factors contribute, including the social and cultural pressures that influence young women’s educational choices, as well as the industries and types of jobs they enter. Family and childcare responsibilities also have a major impact on the hours that female employees work, which in turn affects their work positions, responsibilities, and salaries.

The full issue of RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, titled “A Half Century of Change in the Lives of American Women,” features an in-depth discussion of contributors to the wage gap, women’s sluggish political participation, and the dynamics of the “motherhood penalty.” You can find the whole issue available here.

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