The sorry state of America's working women

On International Women’s Day, it’s worth asking how American working women are doing compared with their counterparts in other developed countries. 

The answer: not great. 

On a number of fronts, American women who work outside the home are lagging their counterparts in countries such as Sweden, Mexico, Italy and Greece. U.S. women suffer from a gender wage gap that’s wider than in those and 17 other countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Every developed country offers paid parental leave -- except for the U.S. And a smaller share of American women are even in the workforce than their peers in developed countries such as Canada and Germany, according to the Economic Policy Institute. 

A strike designed to coincide with International Women’s Day aims to draw notice to the problems facing women who work both in and outside the home. Called “A Day Without a Woman,” the March 8 strike is asking women to abstain from both paid and unpaid labor, with the latter representing what was termed “The Second Shift” in a 1989 book about how women face an unpaid shift of labor when they arrive home from their jobs. 

While the strike has noble goals, it’s the type of gesture that may be practical for only higher-paid women in secure jobs. Lower-paid women in hourly jobs may not be able to afford to forgo a day’s wage or might fear losing their jobs. 

“The Day Without Women Strike is a great idea, but so many women don’t have the privilege to just not go to work,” one woman wrote on Twitter. “If I do it, I’m fired.”

About two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in America are women, according to the National Women’s Law Center. They tend to be clustered in low-paid occupations that are associated with traditional “women’s work,” such as early childhood education and in cleaning services. 

Of course, gender affects every level of professional work, from cashiers to tech executives. While women are entering leadership roles in greater numbers than before, they generally occupy fewer chairs at the table than do men. In the oil and energy sector, women accounted for 17.4 percent of leadership roles in 2016, a decline of 5 percent from 2008, research from LinkedIn found. 

Even though women are graduating from college at higher rates than men, women tend to be overrepresented in traditionally lower-paying fields, such as nonprofits and education, said Paul Ko, an economist at LinkedIn. 

“If you go to higher-paying jobs in industries like auto, oil and energy, males still dominate,” he said. 

Men and women also market themselves differently. Men typically use “self-promoting words” more frequently than women, such as “strong leader” and “proven,” Ko added. Women also tend to list fewer skills than men in their profiles, even when they have the same qualifications, he added. 

Aside from the differences in how men and women market themselves to employers, women in the U.S. are also suffering from a gender pay gap that puts them at greater risk of poverty and failing to save enough for retirement. Given that women generally live longer than men, an unfunded retirement can have more dire consequences for women. 

Workforce inequalities may grow worse for American women as they age, recent research from Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco suggests. The economists created fictional resumes for men and women in three age groups, young, middle-aged and old. Other than age and gender, the resumes were identical. They found that older women suffered the most from age discrimination: They were they least likely to receive a callback for the jobs. 

“Women experience more age discrimination than men do,” the researchers noted. “We do not have evidence on why age discrimination may be worse for older women, but it could be because applicant appearance matters in our sample of low-skilled jobs, and the effects of aging on physical appearance are evaluated more harshly for women than for men.”

It’s a mistake to think the issue gender equality affects only the female half of the American population, as EPI economists Elise Gould and Jessica Schieder wrote in a research note on Tuesday. 

“The health of the female workforce is hugely important to the health of the overall labor force,” they noted. “Policies like paid parental leave and subsidized child care increase parental labor force participation, which would boost the economy.”

They added, “Many of our peer nations have such policies, and, not surprisingly, their employment rates are much higher than ours.”

In 2000, about 74 percent of American women held jobs outside the home. That has declined to 70 percent today. By comparison, the share of working women has increased in Germany, Canada and Japan -- each country enjoys a larger share of working women than does the U.S. 

By the EPI researchers’ estimates, if American women had the same labor force participation rate as in Germany, where about 79 percent of women work outside the home, it would boost U.S. GDP by 3.4 percent, adding $600 billion in extra economic activity.