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• The international rankings for women’s labor force participation vary somewhat depending on the specific measure used, but the general conclusion is the same: The United States used to rank near the top of industrialized nations, but in the past 30 years, many countries have leapfrogged the U.S.
• Economists say the U.S. rate has stagnated for several reasons, including a lack of government policies encouraging child care and paid leave.
During a visit to Howell, Mich., President Joe Biden touted key agenda items under negotiation in Congress. One of the proposals he wants to see receive final Congressional approval is support for child care, which he said would benefit both children and their parents, including mothers who want to take jobs outside the home.
"How can we compete in the world if millions of American parents, especially moms, can’t join the workforce because they can’t afford the cost of child care or elder care? They have to stay home," Biden said in the Oct. 5 speech.
He went on to say that the United States had fallen behind its industrialized peers in the percentage of women in the labor force.
"Thirty years ago, the United States ranked sixth among advanced economies in the share of women in the workforce," Biden said. "You know where we are today? Twenty-three. Twenty-two countries have a higher percentage of their women in the workforce making a competitive wage than the United States. While our competitors are investing in the care economy, we’re standing still."
Has the United States really fallen so far behind in women’s participation in the labor force? Our research shows it has.
We asked the White House for a source, and they pointed to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a think tank that studies advanced industrialized nations. The data broadly supports how Biden characterized the shifts between 1990 and 2020.
There are multiple ways to measure the phenomenon Biden addressed — notably, what age ranges are used. If you look at the labor force participation rate for all women at least 15 years of age, the United States ranked seventh in 1990, behind Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Norway and Canada. But by 2020, the United States’ ranking had fallen to 17th. (Labor force participation rate refers to the percentage of a given group that is either employed or is actively seeking work.)
An alternative statistic — the labor force participation rate for women in the prime working ages of 25 to 54 — shows an even steeper U.S. decline.
The White House used a slightly different version of the OECD data than we did, which accounts for the differences in the U.S. rankings. But multiple economists told us that the differences in rankings were minor, and that the trend line was much more important.
Specifically, the U.S. percentage of women working basically stagnated over those 30 years, even as 13 nations leapfrogged the U.S. between 1990 and 2020: Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
"However you define it, I think the president is highlighting genuine trends," said Gary Burtless, an economist with the Brookings Institution.
Historically, women in the U.S. gravitated to the labor force earlier than women in other countries did. Right after World War II, only about one-third of U.S. women were in the labor force, but by the late 1990s, that percentage had risen steeply, to the low-60% range. Since then, however, it has plateaued and even fallen modestly overall.
By the early 1990s, the United States ranked higher on this measurement than most of its economic peers.
Since the 1990s, the downturn has been driven mostly by "married women with a college degree, particularly those married to high-earning men," said Stefania Albanesi, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh. Albanesi said her research suggests that a rise in earnings of college-educated men, particularly those at the top of the income distribution, has reduced the pressure for married women to take paying work outside the home.
As the U.S. rate began to fall, other nations caught up.
Several factors drove these international shifts, economists say. One is that women in other countries have belatedly made gains in educational attainment, giving them a boost in the labor market.
But perhaps the biggest difference comes from the lack of social policies in the United States that enable women with children to take jobs. The policies that are common in other industrialized countries but not in the U.S. include "publicly provided child care services, an entitlement to paid parental leave, laws giving workers the right to demand a change to a part-time work schedule without exception and without being discriminated against," said Mihaela Pintea, an economist at Florida International University.
The upshot of the lack of such policies in the U.S. is that it’s "costly or burdensome for women with kids to remain in the workforce after they have a child," Burtless said.
Claudia Goldin, a Harvard University economist, cautioned that it’s tricky to make cross-national comparisons on labor-force participation.
Perhaps the biggest factor complicating Biden’s comparison is that countries define part-time work differently. Generally speaking, when looking only at participation among women who work full-time hours, the U.S. ranks higher in international comparisons, Goldin said.
"If you did this comparison just for full-time work, we’d be up there," she said. "If you weighted by hours, we’d be up there."
Pintea added that, despite grim statistics like those cited by Biden, U.S. women who are working may still be better positioned in some ways. Effectively, the U.S. labor market environment pushes women to either skip working entirely or take a full-time job, rather than finding a middle ground.
"In a lot of other countries, women might work part-time as opposed to full time and may be less likely to be promoted into managerial positions, or may have lower wages than their male counterparts because of their career path," she said.
Biden said, "Thirty years ago, the United States ranked sixth among advanced economies in the share of women in the workforce. You know where we are today? Twenty-three."
The specific rankings vary a bit depending on what measure one uses, though by one measurement, the U.S. position is even worse than Biden said.
The general conclusion is the same: The United States used to rank near the top of the pack of industrialized countries in women’s participation in the labor force, but over the past 30 years, many other countries have leapfrogged the U.S. in that measurement, as the rate in the U.S. stagnated or even fell.
Economists say the U.S. rate has been lagging for several reasons, including a lack of government policies encouraging child care and paid leave and other countries catching up to the United States’ earlier gains in women’s educational attainment.
We rate the statement Mostly True.
White House, "Remarks by President Biden on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and Build Back Better Agenda," Oct. 5, 2021
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, "Labor force participation rate, by sex and age group," accessed Oct. 6, 2021
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, "Labor Force Participation Rate - Women," accessed Oct. 6, 2021
Email interview with Tara Sinclair, George Washington University economist, Oct. 6, 2021
Email interview with Gary Burtless, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Oct. 6, 2021
Email interview with Stefania Albanesi, economist at the University of Pittsburgh, Oct. 6, 2021
Email interview with Mihaela Pintea, economist at Florida International University, Oct. 6, 2021
Email interview with Claudia Goldin, economist at Harvard University economist, Oct. 6, 2021
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