Can More Working Women Fill the Labor Market Gaps?

By Joseph Coombs Jun 20, 2017
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Recent research shows that women could play a significant role in filling the record number of job openings available.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced that there were 6 million job openings in April, the largest amount of available jobs since the BLS began providing the statistic in 2000. But many employers are struggling to find properly skilled workers for open positions.

Globally, women make up half of the world's working-age population, but "continue to be underrepresented" in the labor market, according to a March study from Gallup and the International Labour Organization (ILO). In 2016, half of working-age women (50 percent) were participating in the global labor market, compared with 76 percent of men, the study said.

"Worldwide, productivity is slowing, which means human development is slowing," said Gallup Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton, in the report. "One solution to this incredibly depressing situation is to dramatically increase the number of women who have full and productive employment. And we need more women in management and leadership roles."

The Gallup/ILO report was based on interviews with nearly 149,000 adults in 142 countries and territories around the world. Women were asked if they would prefer to work at a paid job or to stay at home and take care of their family and the housework, or both. Men were asked a similar question about what they would prefer for the women in their households.

Seven out of 10 (70 percent) women said they would prefer that they work at a paid job, and that total "notably includes a majority of women who are not currently in the workforce," the report said. Even if job opportunities exist for women, there's a gender gap in some parts of the world about the notion of women going to work. In North Africa, for example, 79 percent of women believe that work outside the home is acceptable, compared with 57 percent of men, the study said.

Another report by the BLS showed that women's labor force participation in the United States has slowly declined since hitting a peak of 60 percent in 1999. The most recent BLS data available, from May, show that women's participation was 56.9 percent.

The BLS report provides evidence that more women are obtaining degrees and perhaps boosting their earning power as a result. Among women ages 25 to 64 in the U.S. labor force, the proportion with a college degree more than tripled from 1970 to 2015, increasing from 11 percent to 41 percent, according to the report.

The gap in women's earnings as a proportion of men's earnings has also narrowed over time. In 1979, women working full time earned 62 percent of what men earned; in 2015, women's earnings were 81 percent of men's.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Pay Equity]

Elsewhere, a recent data analysis by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) shows that women have made strides in filling the ranks of professional and managerial occupations. In 2016, more than 1 in 3 lawyers was female, compared to fewer than 1 in 10 in 1974, according to the DOL. Women also occupy the majority of management occupations in several fields, including human resources managers (74 percent), social and community service managers (71 percent), and education administrators (65 percent), according to the DOL's analysis.

The overall labor force participation rate will continue to decline in the future, largely due to retirements among Baby Boomers, said Michael Williams, an economist and consultant in Atlanta. However, recent projections by the Congressional Budget Office for 2017-47 show that women's labor force participation will increase during the first 10 years of that time frame and then level off thereafter, Williams said.

"Women may be filling the labor market void in the U.S. for any number of reasons," Williams said. "It is women that often support children without a spouse, and this provides motivation to work. Women statistically live longer than men in the U.S., and many women look for activities after their spouse dies. Also, women are now graduating at a higher rate than men from high school, college and graduate school."

Joseph Coombs is a freelance writer based in Springfield, Va.

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