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Here's how far women have come in the workplace — and where they still need to go

A hundred years after women gained voting rights in the U.S., women are participating in the workforce at nearly the highest level ever, making them even more economically important as workers and consumers.

But they still have a long way to go in terms of hiring discrimination, gender pay gap, and underrepresentation in senior roles.

In 2001, 60% of women were employed or actively seeking employment — the highest level on record and almost double from the first time it was recorded in 1948 when it was 32%. Since then, the female participation rate has leveled off in the high 50s.

“There has been tremendous progress in those 100 years, in the last 50 years,” AnnElizabeth Konkel of the Indeed Hiring Lab told Cashay. “But there's still so much farther to go.”

What changed work for women?

Some of the biggest milestones for women in the workforce were court cases in the 1970s revolving around discrimination between the sexes.

The first sex discrimination case was Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp. decision in 1971. Ida Phillips was denied a job because she was a mother of preschool children. But the company she applied for employed men with preschool children, so she filed a case. Philips didn’t win, but this was the beginning of a turning point.

The first major Supreme Court case addressing discrimination based on gender was Reed v. Reed in 1971. The case involved a couple who were separated and in a conflict over who would administer the estate of their deceased son. The Idaho Code at the time said that males have to be given preference when appointing estate administrators.

In 2001, 60% of women were employed or actively seeking employment — the highest level on record and almost double from the first time it was recorded in 1948 when it was 32%. Photo: Getty Creative
In 2001, 60% of women were employed or actively seeking employment — the highest level on record and almost double from the first time it was recorded in 1948 when it was 32%. Photo: Getty Creative

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now a Supreme Court Justice, co-wrote Sally Reed's brief. Reed won the case with the Supreme Court prohibiting differential treatment based on sex for the first time.

In Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue in 1972, Charles E. Moritz, an unmarried man, claimed a tax deduction for taking care of his invalid mother. But the Internal Revenue Service denied it because the deduction was allowed for women and formerly married men only. The court ruled to extend the coverage of the deduction provisions to unmarried men and the law was amended allowing dependent care expenses to be deducted regardless of sex or marital history.

More education ‘started to move the needle forward’

Courts cases and the rising rate of women in education led to women’s rapid growth in the workforce.

“Also in the 70s, you had this opening of colleges and other institutions that before were closed to women,” Konkel said. “That really started to move the needle forward.”

From 1970 to 2001 the employment-to-population ratio for women increased from 41% to almost 58%. Photo: Getty Creative
From 1970 to 2001 the employment-to-population ratio for women increased from 41% to almost 58%. Photo: Getty Creative

In a similar trajectory to the labor force participation rate, the employment-to-population ratio — the number of people employed against the total working-age population — dramatically increased for women, especially in the 1970s and onward. From 1970 to 2001 the employment-to-population ratio for women increased from 41% to almost 58%.

“We see that in the data, once the 1970s begins the progress continues moving forward and peaked in the early 2000s,” Konkel said. “Pre-pandemic particularly and 2018 and 2019, the tight labor market was pulling in people from the sidelines: women, minorities, those with criminal records and those with disabilities.”

The labor force participation rate for black women in 1972 was 51% and rose up to 66% in the 2000s. For Hispanic women, the participation rate increased from 43% in 1977 to 60% in the 2000s.

‘We have not crossed the finish line yet’

While women are participating in the workforce at high levels and even had the largest presence in the U.S. workforce versus men before the pandemic, they still face hiring discrimination, a gender pay gap, and underrepresentation in senior roles.

One in 3 complaints of workplace discrimination in 2019 was based on gender and another 1 in 3 was based on race, according to data by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), making workplace discrimination a particularly big problem for women of color, according to Konkel.

“Hiring discrimination still does happen and particularly for women of color,” she said. “That's the starting gate of getting that job and getting into the workforce, so there’s definitely a barrier still there.”

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Despite gains, the gender pay gap remains. Women of all races earned, on average, just 82 cents for every $1 earned by men of all races in 2018, according to an analysis of the census data by the Center for American Progress. Women of color see the largest wage gap by earning 62 cents for every dollar earned by men of all races, the analysis found.

Not only are women still paid less than their male counterparts, but they are still hampered by a glass ceiling when it comes to leadership positions and executive roles. There are just 38 women running Fortune 500 companies, accounting for just 7.6% of the pie. This also is an all-time high for women CEOs in the Fortune 500.

“If you know 50% of the workforce is women, why are we not seeing 50% in leadership roles?” Konkel said. “Overall as women, we've made a ton of progress, but we have not crossed the finish line yet.”

‘That coronavirus set women back’

The coronavirus pandemic has hit women in the workforce particularly hard, eroding years of gains in terms of labor participation.

“That coronavirus set women back in terms of their workforce participation 10 or 20 years,” Konkel said. “That is really concerning and certainly something on my mind watching all this play out in the economy.”

One-in-three mothers said they are staying out of work because they have to take care of their children, according to <a href="https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/08/parents-juggle-work-and-child-care-during-pandemic.html" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:data by the Census Bureau" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">data by the Census Bureau</a>. Photo: Getty Creative
One-in-three mothers said they are staying out of work because they have to take care of their children, according to data by the Census Bureau. Photo: Getty Creative

From the start, job losses from the pandemic were largely concentrated in sectors dominated by women, such as services and hospitality. These industries will need more time to recover from the crisis.

Along with these sectors, education and state and local government — which heavily employ women — also got hit hard by the pandemic. There remain many uncertainties about the future of those sectors as well.

On top of that, 1 in 3 mothers said they are staying out of work because they have to take care of their children, according to data by the Census Bureau, another blow to working women.

“A woman might be growing in her career, but then pulled between caring for an elderly parent, as well as childcare,” Konkel said. “She's really crunched as to what to do.”

Denitsa is a reporter for Yahoo Finance and Cashay. Follow her on Twitter @denitsa_tsekova.

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