Half Of All U.S. Workers Are Women — Can Policy Adapt To The New Reality?

womenworkToday, for the first time in American history, half of all U.S. workers are women and mothers are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American families. As recently as 1969, women made up only one-third of the workforce, marking just how much of a shift has occurred in the last few decades.

Last year, only one in five families with children (20.7 percent) consisted a traditional male breadwinner with a female homemaker, compared to 44.7 percent in 1975. And the current recession has only accelerated this workforce transformation, as men have lost three out of four jobs since it began in December 2007.


These changes have important ramifications for U.S. economic policy going forward — not that we’ve done much so far to acknowledge them. To that end, the Center for American Progress, in partnership with Californa First Lady Maria Shriver, released The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything. The report looks at the changing American workforce, and how policy can adapt to the new economic reality. “Institutions need to adapt to who the American family is today,” Shriver said on Meet The Press yesterday. “They need to get smarter. They need to get more progressive.”

First up, of course, is getting the pay gap under control. Women still make just 77 cents on the dollar compared to their male colleagues, which over the course of a career, will deprive a woman of $434,000 in lifetime earnings. With women more often becoming the primary breadwinner, this poses an obvious problem. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which prohibits retaliation against employees who actively seek knowledge regarding the pay rates of their coworkers, could help in this area.

But the problems don’t end there. As Ann O’Leary and Karen Kornbluh wrote “nearly all of our government policies—from our basic labor standards to our social insurance system—are still rooted in the fundamental assumption that families typically rely on a single breadwinner.” For instance, the U.S. is the only industrialized country without any requirement that employers provide paid family leave, while many employer-sponsored benefits are not designed with pregnancy or caregiving in mind.

Kornbluh and O’Leary advocated updating America’s social insurance policies (like expanding the percentage of the workforce covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act), and increasing support to families for child care, early education and elder care. “All families need real support when there is no longer a wife at home to provide these services free of charge. And our government should not stop at solving the child care crisis: Families also need real support and aid in providing elder care,” they wrote.

Read more about The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything in today’s Progress Report.