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3111639-african-american-female-adult-working-at-a-laptop-computer-and-smilingOver the course of the past four decades, women have been making significant gains in their labor force participation and educational attainment.

In 2010, women made up almost half of the labor force (46.7%). In 1997, women made up 46.2% of the labor force, and back in 1970 women made up only 38.1% of the labor force.

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There was some speculation that women’s share of employment could surpass men’s during the 2007-2009 Great Recession—often referred to as the “Mancession” because of disproportionate job losses in male-dominated fields such as construction and manufacturing. However, women have fared worse than men in the recovery that began in mid-2009.

Women in today’s workforce who do marry and have children are not necessarily leaving their careers to do so. Today’s woman often balances her career with her husband and children. Fully 48% of married couples in 2010 consisted of two breadwinners.

On the education front, women have made substantial strides in recent decades and now surpass men in both college enrollment and completion. Some 44% of women ages 18 to 24 were enrolled in college or graduate programs as of October 2010, compared with just 38% of men in the same age group.4 In addition, 36% of women ages 25 to 29 had a bachelor’s degree, compared with only 28% of men in the same age group—a record-high divergence. Women first surpassed men in these realms in the early 1990s, and the gap has been growing wider ever since.

In spite of their educational advantage and increased presence in the workplace, women continue to lag behind men in terms of earning power. In 2010, women who were full-time or salaried workers had median weekly earnings of $669, compared with $824 for their male counterparts. Still, women have made big strides in attaining equal pay. In 1979, when data of this sort began being collected, women earned on average 62% of what men earned. After steadily rising for the past two and a half decades, the growth in the women’s-to-men’s earnings ratio settled around 2004 and has remained in the 80-81% range since then.

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Today’s wage gap is smaller among young workers than among their older counterparts. Among all workers ages 16 to 34, women’s earnings are more than 90% of men’s; this ratio drops for women ages 35 to 64, who earn 80% or less of what men earn across the board. While this could signal a changing workplace, women have tended to fall behind men as their careers progress, so it remains to be seen whether this is an age or generational phenomenon.

As all of these long-term trend lines attest, there have been significant changes over the decades in the experiences of women and men in the labor force. Attitudes have changed as well. A 1978 Gallup survey asked respondents to rate how much they agree with the following statement: “Commitment to a meaningful career is very important to me.” Back then, 67% of young men ages 18 to 34 agreed strongly, while only 53% of young women said the same. 

You can read the full report by reading The Pew Research Women 2013 Report.

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