The Economy Is 11 Percent Bigger Thanks To Women’s Work

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If women hadn’t dramatically increased how much time they spend working for pay outside the home since the late 1970s, gross domestic product (GDP) would have been about 11 percent lower in 2012, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP). That’s nearly twice the contribution to GDP from information, communications, and technology-producing industries that year. Women’s contribution to GDP also translates to more than $1.7 trillion in greater output, “roughly equivalent to combined U.S. spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in 2012,” the report notes.

In 1979, the typical woman worked just 925 hours each year outside of the home. That figure nearly doubled by 2007 to 1,820 hours before declining slightly after the crisis. “That is, the median annual hours worked by women increased 739 hours between 1979 and 2012,” the report says, with all of the increase happening by 2000. If women instead kept working at the same rate as in 1979, their hours would be about 10.6 percent lower, thus decreasing GDP. Today, the majority of women and mothers work and many work full time. The share women working full time, year round jumped from about 29 percent in 1979 to 43.6 percent in 2007. The numbers dipped slightly after the recession, but even at that point, women were 12 percentage points more likely to work full time all year in 2012 than they were in 1979.

Mothers have experienced even greater increases. The typical mother increased her work hours by 150 percent between 1979 and 2012. On top of that, many more mothers are working full time, year round. In 1979, the share of mothers putting in that kind of schedule was less than 30 percent, but by 2007 46 percent of mothers were working full time.

At the same time, the share of women who don’t work for pay outside of the home has fallen. Nearly 35 percent of women in the late 1970s didn’t work, a number than fell to just about a quarter in 2000 before rising slightly in recent years, although that increase may be thanks to tough financial circumstances instead of the choice to stay home with children. Part time work has also dropped off, declining from about 37 percent of women to about 27 percent.

Much of women’s increased participation in the labor force between 1970 and 1990 was fueled by increased access to contraception, which allowed them to invest in education and training and thus pursue careers without the fear of having to interrupt their efforts thanks to unwanted pregnancies. Access to the pill accounted for at least 15 percent of increased work hours for women ages 16 to 30 during that time.

But the report notes that much of this progress has flatlined in recent years and mothers’ labor force participation has plateaued since 1990. Since then, women’s rate of participation has only edged up to about 75 percent while 21 other developed countries far outstripped us, with rates on average at nearly 80 percent. That means that while the country used to rank at number six among these countries for its share of working women, it’s since fallen to 17. And researchers have found this is thanks to the United States failing to pass family friendly policies such as paid family leave, increased child care spending, and supports for workers who seek to go part time. If it had done so, women’s labor force participation rate would be 82 percent.

As the CAP report notes, studies have found that women’s work hours are similar to men’s in married couples who both work when child care is publicly provided, and paid family leave also boosts their employment rates. Yet the country is one of just a few globally that doesn’t guaranteed paid maternity leave, while spending on child care assistance has hit a decade low.

So even though America’s working women have significantly increased GDP, there’s plenty more room for growth. If their employment level were raised to the same level as men’s, the economy would be 5 percent larger.