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In Celebration Of Labor Day, A Look At Women In The U.S. Workforce

By Ashley Young | NPR
Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Women have been breaking all sorts of glass ceilings recently.

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, U.S. women took home more gold medals than anybody else. Beyoncé was nominated for 11 VMA awards this year and took home eight, setting a record for VMA wins (and the #BeyHive rejoiced). And of course, this summer Hillary Clinton became the first woman to be nominated for president by a major political party. That's never happened in our nation's 240 year history.

And for everyday working women, a lot has changed for the better, too. Wages have increased and some women even now generally earn more than men.

Let's look deeper at the state of women in the workforce. We'll use Clinton's historic first as our jumping-off point.

Women In Elected Office

There are now more women serving in public office than ever before. There were only 15 women serving in the 92nd Congress (1971-1973). Now there are 108. However, we still don't have full representation, as NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports:

That slow creep into presidential campaigns reflects a larger trend: Women make up a bigger share of national and state lawmakers than ever, and yet the share of women in major political positions remains disproportionately low. Women make up around 19 percent of all members of Congress and less than 25 percent of all state legislators. They also make up six of the nation's 50 governors, or 12 percent.

Despite being 50.1 percent of the population, women make up less than one-third of all public officials. (There's an underrepresentation of minorities, too.) Why is this?

Well, there could be several reasons: Women are still the primary caregivers in their households, they're more wary of the perceptions of gender bias in the political arena, and they need to be greatly encouraged to run in the historically male-dominated political sphere.

A look at other countries shows just how far behind American women are (if we keep in mind women only make up 22 percent of all government positions globally). Cuba, South Africa, Sweden, Afghanistan, Sudan and Mexico are just a few countries with higher female representation in government than the U.S., according to data by the International Organization of Parliaments. America is 97th of 203 countries. Who's first? Rwanda, with a lower house of parliament that is 63.8 percent female.

Women Entering The Workforce: College And Careers

The U.S. has seen booms in college-educated women, most notably during the first part of the 20th century, again in the 1970s, and now. There are currently more women enrolling in college than men, particularly Hispanic and black women, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. In 1994, there was only a two percentage point difference in the rate at which recent female and male high school graduates enrolled at four-year institutions. By 2012, women were outpacing men in college enrollment by more than ten percentage points.

With the increase in college degrees, there are now more women seeking careers that were once solely headed by men. For example, the population of lawyers was 12.4 percent female in 1980. Today, women make up 36 percent. (Of course, that's still a large gender disparity. And of note: When it comes to taking the lead role in trials, female lawyers are less likely to do so, according to a study by the American Bar Association.)

There's also been a push to include more women in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — and progress has been mixed. Women now earning degrees in bioscience about equal men. But the number of women majoring in computer science and engineering is lagging behind that of men. In an interview with Recode, President Obama told tech columnist Kara Swisher that the government wasn't doing enough to help schools teach the skills necessary for careers in mathematics and science and that the entertainment industry needed to do a better job in portraying successful women engineers.

"Part of what you want to do is introduce this with the ABCs and the colors. And particularly focusing on girls, participation — math, science, technology — early is important," Obama said. "Underrepresented groups, African-Americans, Latinos. We've got to get those kids tapped in."

The Obama administration's White House Council on Women and Girls and the Office of Science and Technology have worked to expand the number of female STEM students. The most recent initiative was a push for an additional $4 billion in funding for increasing educational science and technology programs in elementary, middle and high schools across the nation.

One major enticement for women to choose a career in STEM is the guarantee of a pretty hefty salary; yet a gender pay gap still exists in STEM industries.

Women's Earnings

"Equal pay for equal work is a shared American value," Republican Sen. Deb Fischer told Congress on Equal Pay Day this year. "At its core, equal pay is about basic fairness and ensuring that every woman, just like every man, has the opportunity to build a life that she chooses."

In 2016, women earned 81.8 percent of what men earned on a weekly basis, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Using America's median income, that means women earned $320 less a month and $3,840 less a year. For Hispanic and black women, earnings tend to dip even lower.

Of course, these numbers become more fluid depending on career. For instance, women who worked in education made a median weekly salary of $907 in 2015, while men in the same field earned $1,144.

In 2009, the first piece of legislation Obama signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, extending the period of time for women to file complaints of employment discrimination regarding earnings. This year, Obama went one step further by proposing companies with over 100 employees disclose salary data based on race, gender and ethnicity.

Another bill, the Paycheck Fairness Act, would protect women from retaliation from their employer when they seek to discuss and challenge their wages. The bill has been introduced to Congress every year since 1977, and has repeatedly been defeated. It was again introduced in November 2015, but no real action has been taken on it since.

So, More Leaders And More Grads. Why Less Pay?

A number of theories could explain why the gender wage gap is so persistent. For one, women are less likely to negotiate their salaries. Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel of the National Women's Law Center, told NPR's Jennifer Ludden, "Because often your pay is set with some reference to how much you made at your last job, the impact of pay discrimination can follow people through their careers."

Another factor that could be contributing to unequal pay: motherhood. Women who have children often bump up against what's termed a "maternal wall" and make less than young, childless women who live in cities, according to a study by Reach Advisors' James Chung. The reason could be fear on the part of employers that mothers won't be as committed to their jobs as childless workers. As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reported, there's been a steady increase of pregnancy and maternity discrimination charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission since the 1990s.

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