Women in the Workplace

Learn how women’s roles in the labor force have changed over time

Coworkers chat around desks in an office

gremlin / Getty Images

We’ve come a long way from when women stayed home to tend to the home and children—or worked as housekeepers—while men went off to work. Homemakers continue to provide invaluable support to their families, but today, women also have the choice to build careers. And many have chosen to do so.

How many women participate in the labor force, exactly? And what challenges do they still face in the workplace? Learn more about women and the workplace.

Key Takeaways

  • The participation rate among women in the workforce is about 57% and about 68% for men.
  • A woman earns an average of 82 cents for every dollar a man earns with the uncontrolled wage gap, which narrows when various factors are controlled.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic intensified many of the challenges faced by working women, including the uneven distribution of home labor and caregiving responsibilities.

What Percentage of Women Work?

In July 2022, the labor-force participation rate among women was 56.9%. A slow but steady rise has defined women’s workforce participation. In 1840, about 10% of women had jobs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the proportion of all women 14 years old and older in the labor force increased from around 20% in 1900 to 26% in 1940. The proportion of married women 15 years old and older in the labor force almost tripled from approximately 5.6% in 1900 to 15.1% in 1940.

Here are statistics of female participation in the civilian labor force from the last 70 or so years, rounded to the nearest percentage, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Year Labor Force Participation Rate
January 1950 33%
January 1960 37%
January 1970 43%
January 1980 52%
January 1990 58%
January 2000 60%
January 2010 59%
January 2015 57%
January 2020 58%
January 2021 56%
January 2022 57%

However, some women have always worked in greater numbers. In 1940, women who had divorced, had an absentee husband, or were widowed were almost equally likely to work versus not work, according to the Census. Black women have also always had higher labor-force participation rates than white women. Here’s a comparison starting in January 1972, the earliest year for which there is consistent data for Black and white women.

Year Black Women Over Age 20 White Women Over Age 20
January 1972 51% 43%
January 1982 56% 52%
January 1992 60% 58%
January 2002 65% 60%
January 2012 62% 59%
January 2015 61% 58%
January 2020 64% 58%
January 2021 60% 56%
January 2022 62% 57%

Every year since 2000, the workforce participation rate of women has decreased overall, and participation is expected to stay below the men’s rate through 2050, according to BLS projections. The number of women in the workforce is expected to decrease, based on the high population of Baby Boomers expected to exit the workforce.

Women in Leadership

Women’s jobs have varied, but management didn’t appear on the top-10 women’s occupations list until 1950 when about 558,545 women were working as managers. These numbers have steadily increased; by 1980, the number of female managers and administrators had roughly doubled.


As of July 2022, women made up 50.6% of managers of companies and enterprises.

The growing number of working women in leadership is great news for the labor market in general. Research by McKinsey and Company and LeanIn.org shows that when compared to men, female managers are more often:

  • Providing emotional support
  • Checking in on overall well-being
  • Helping ensure manageability of employee workloads
  • Helping team members with work-life balance
  • Taking actions to prevent or manage burnout

Women’s Pay: The Gender Gap

Despite the larger number of women in the workforce and the potential benefits to having women leadership, significant gaps can still exist between what a woman earns versus what a man earns.

In 2022, a woman working full-time earned an average of 82 cents for each $1 earned by a full-time working man, based on a 2022 report from compensation platform Payscale—a large increase from 1973, when women earned 57 cents on the dollar.

However, this is called the “uncontrolled gender pay gap” and indicates the overall jobs and earnings occupied by women. Women’s occupations have shifted dramatically in the past 100 years—but the top occupations employing the largest numbers of women primarily have included domestic workers, teachers, secretaries, sales clerks, and other lower-paid professions.

The controlled gender pay gap is much closer, at 99 cents for each $1 men make, according to Payscale. The controlled gender pay gap controls for factors such as:

  • Job title
  • Education
  • Experience
  • Industry
  • Job level
  • Hours worked

The gender gap is influenced by additional factors, the report noted, which are discussed below.


Women may reduce working hours (and therefore income) to care for children or may otherwise face perceptions that they’re not as committed to their work, according to the Payscale survey. Women who take extended unemployment to care for children or family members also face a reduction in earnings. This is how parenting impacts women:

  • Uncontrolled pay gap: 74 cents for every $1 earned by a male parent
  • Controlled pay gap: 98 cents for every $1 earned by a male parent

“A large driver of the wage gap results from the pressure society places on women when it comes to child-rearing and care,” said Siran Cao, CEO and co-founder of Mirza, a fintech platform that supports working parents. “The U.S. simply does not have an infrastructure to support gender equity.”


For every $1 that white men make, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander, Black, American Indian, and Native Alaskan women earn less than 80 cents per hour in the uncontrolled gap. As Payscale noted, these populations are more likely to work in lower-paying jobs. In 2019, Black women (28%) and Hispanic women (31%) were more likely than Asian women and white women (both at about 20%) to work in lower-paying service occupations.

With the controlled pay gap, the disparity decreases for some more than others, according to Payscale:

  • Black women: 98 cents 
  • Hispanic, American Indian, and Alaska Native women: 99 cents
  • Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander women: $1

However, the survey found that these women of color may experience widening pay gaps as they move up the ladder into executive roles. For example, Asian women make 97 cents for every $1 white men make in the uncontrolled gap, and $1.03 for every $1 in the controlled gap, but don’t advance to leadership roles at the same pace as white women.


According to a January 2022 U.S. Census study, the gender pay gap has narrowed for younger women due to more education and increased occupational options in higher-paying careers such as information or professional, scientific, and technical services. The gap begins to widen at ages 35-44, then widens again at 45-54, and continues to gap.

Women ages 20-29 make $1 for every $1 men make, according to the Payscale study, but this falls to 98 cents for every $1 earned by age 45 or older. The uncontrolled pay gap is 86 cents for every $1 for ages 20-29 and 73 cents for ages 45 and older.


Other factors influencing the pay gap include geographic location, education, job title, and occupational stereotypes.

How the Pandemic Affected Women in the Workforce

The COVID-19 pandemic-related drops of April 2020 led to women’s job-participation rates falling from 58% to 55%, closer to the participation rates of the 1980s, recovering to 57% as of 2022. From January 2020 to March 2020, Black women’s rates dropped from 64% to 59%, while white women’s rates dropped from 58% to 56%. As of July 2022, Black women’s participation rate is at 62%, while white women’s is at 57%.

Women, lower-wage workers, workers without a college degree, and younger workers were more likely to lose their jobs than others during the pandemic, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Between February and April, the workforce lost 20 million employees, yet job losses were 4% higher among women than men.

As schools and daycares closed during the COVID-19 lockdown, women working at home reported lower work productivity and job satisfaction than men. When comparing February through April 2020 work hours, mothers with young children reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers.

“The number of women in the workforce has drastically changed since COVID due to more women having to drop out of the workforce and stay home to care for their families and/or children over their male counterparts,” Cao said.


Almost one out of two mothers of school-aged children weren’t working in April 2020.

Challenges for Working Women

Women have been making strides in the workplace, but they face significant roadblocks to receiving the same pay and opportunities as their male peers, including unequal distribution of caregiving responsibilities and lingering discrimination. The following is a look at some of the specific challenges working women deal with and a few tips for coping.

The Second Shift

The 1989 book “The Second Shift” by Arlie Hochschild outlined the domestic activities before and after work in dual-parent households and found that women spent more hours per week on housework and child care than men, even in egalitarian homes.

“Working a second shift means that women may get less rest than their male counterparts, and they may need to push even harder at work and home to perform as well,” said Katherine Kirkinis, CEO and co-founder of Wanderlust Careers.

If you have a partner, Kirkinis suggested having a frank conversation about dividing household chores (and child care, if applicable) evenly.

“Women may be socialized to take on these roles, but people of all genders can challenge it,” she said. “Make a list of everything for which you are responsible in the home, and work to delegate those tasks to others.”

The Broken Rung

Professional women tend to be promoted at a lower rate than male employees, which is referred to as the “broken rung” on the corporate ladder. A woman’s social network can help her move up the ranks, said Tracy Podell, partner and executive coach at Evolution. But that network can roadblock women if social opportunities within the company are targeted toward men.

“I’ve seen women on the edge of being an executive, but their male peers have better relationships with their superiors because they are included in social activities, like lunch, drinking, golf,” Podell said.


For every 100 men promoted to manager, 86 women are promoted. Men outnumber women significantly at the manager level, and there are far fewer women in the pipeline to promote to even higher levels, such as director or vice president.

Develop a support network of confidantes and mentors in your life, inside and outside of your current job.

“These should be people that are safe and that you can be real with, get support from, brainstorm with, that will be straight with you when you’re spiraling and champion you when it’s time to ask for that raise,” Podell said.


Burnout results from “excessive and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress.” Women are increasingly feeling burned out, and the gap in burnout between women and men is nearly double. In 2021, 1 in 3 women considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their career—more so than during the first few months of the pandemic.

Overwork and burnout are often exacerbated by imposter syndrome and trying to prove yourself.

“This is a trap, because if you don’t believe you are enough, no amount of overwork will change that perception you have of yourself,” Podell said. “Your feelings of inadequacy can lead to a neglect of self-compassion and self-care.”

Strong communication skills can benefit women, according to Podell.

“Taking credit, expressing your opinions with gravitas and authority, having direct-feedback conversations, and making clear requests are all areas in which I see tremendous growth,” she said.

In other words, don’t be afraid to speak up and emphasize what you contribute at work and home.

The Bottom Line

Over the last several decades, women have become a significant and invaluable part of the labor force. Progress has been made toward higher education, better jobs, higher pay, and more respect in the workplace. Change will likely require systemic shifts, recasting “women’s work,” increased graduation rates in well-paid fields, and support from employers and male peers to ensure equal pay and home responsibilities.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What’s made it difficult for women to compete with men in the workplace?

One of the major contributors to women earning less and receiving fewer promotions than men, on average, is the motherhood penalty. Sexism, occupational roles, educational opportunities, career trajectories, and other factors have also contributed. For example, despite making up half of the U.S population, women only make up 27% of those STEM field occupations, and 15% of engineers. However, females are also awarded STEM undergraduate degrees at far lower rates—the pipeline to STEM jobs isn’t flowing well.

How have views about women in the workplace changed?

The U.S. Census gives some insights into changing views. In 1900, the Census believed that women’s economic activity was “far from being customary, and in the well-to-do classes of society is exceptional.” By 1940, the Census predicted that more married women would enter the labor market, and overall, “...movement of women into the labor force cannot be considered temporary. Its magnitude and momentum are too great, and its causes are too elemental. It will continue.” By 2009, women with more education than their husbands participated in the labor force at 73 percent, the Census noted.

Was this page helpful?
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Labor Force Participation Rate - Women."

  2. U.S. Census Bureau. “A Social-Economic Grouping of the Nation's Labor Force 1910-1940."

  3. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Graph: Labor Force Participation Rate - 20 Years and Over, White Women Labor Force Participation Rate - 20 Years and Over, Black or African American Women."

  4. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "A New Look at Long-Term Labor Force Projections to 2050."

  5. U.S. Department of Labor. "100 Years of Working Women."

  6. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Current Employment Statistics.”

  7. McKinsey & Company. "Women in the Workplace 2021."

  8. U.S. Department of Labor. “5 Facts About the State of the Gender Pay Gap.”

  9. Payscale. "2022 State of the Gender Pay Gap Report."

  10. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Women in the Labor Force: A Databook."

  11. U.S. Census Bureau. "Women Consistently Earn Less Than Men."

  12. Federal Reserve Bank of New York. “Some Workers Have Been Hit Much Harder Than Others by the Pandemic.”

  13. Wiley. "COVID-19 and the Gender Gap in Work Hours."

  14. U.S. Census Bureau. “Tracking Job Losses for Mothers of School-Aged Children During a Health Crisis.”

  15. U.S. Census Bureau. "Women Are Nearly Half of U.S. Workforce but Only 27% of STEM Workers."

  16. National Center for Education Statistics. "Indicator 26: STEM Degrees."

  17. Springer. "Women’s Employment: 1865–1920."

  18. U.S. Census. "A Social-Economic Grouping of the Nation’s Labor Force 1910-1940."

  19. U.S. Census Bureau. "Employment and Labor Force."

Related Articles