How Women's Role in the Workforce Has Evolved over the Last 100 Years

How Women’s Role in the Workforce Has Evolved over the Last 100 Years

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Pre-pandemic in 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded that 57.4 percent of all women were participants in the labor force. Rewind 100 years, and the landscape of women in the workforce looked very different. As Janet Yellen shared in an essay, “In the early 20th century, most women in the United States did not work outside the home, and those who did were primarily young and unmarried.” While women are still far from achieving the equality they deserve, these statistics alone demonstrate the great strides that they have made. Once they were expected to stay home, dedicate themselves as caregivers, and tend to the home. Now, they are forging career paths, fighting to shrink the gender wage gap, and breaking into industries and roles that were once viewed as “off-limits.” Clearly, there is still work to be done and progress to be made, but an examination of the past 100+ years shows that women have actually made significant and steady progress on the quest for workplace equality. Let’s take a closer look.

I raise up my voice—not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard. … We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.” -Malala Yousafzai


“Equal Pay for Equal Work”

It’s hard to accurately pinpoint the precise origin of the gender wage gap, but in the United States it emerged as a political issue in the 1860s. Think women’s rights activists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton chanting their rally cry of “equal pay for equal work.” These women gave their all to the fight for equal wages. Nevertheless, around 160 years later, the wage gap persists—and is sizable.

That’s not to say that women haven’t made great strides to shrink it over time. In 1963, the Equal Pay Act was passed, making wage disparity based on sex illegal. It’s worth noting that similar legislation was presented in 1945 thanks to the work of activists like Eleanor Roosevelt, but Congress failed to pass it, despite women taking over men’s jobs throughout World War II.

Still, even today with the Equal Pay Act in place, women consistently earn less than their male counterparts. A 2020 study from Pew Research Center showed that women earned just 84% of what men earned, according to an analysis of median hourly earnings of both full- and part-time workers. By this estimate, it would take an extra 42 days of work for a woman to earn what a man did. It’s also important to keep in mind that the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women, and especially women of color, as they have faced higher unemployment rates over the last couple of years. As such, available data may be skewed to reflect a smaller wage gap than actually exists.

Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. … It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.” -Ruth Bader Ginsburg


Who Wants to be a Millionaire Billionaire?

When you think back to the early 1900s, you likely think of women sitting at home taking care of the children and doing the laundry while their husbands were at work, but did you know that the year 1919 saw the very first female self-made millionaire? That’s right. Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, founded an extremely successful line of haircare products for African American women, the profits of which she invested in real estate. While Madam Walker was clearly the exception and not the rule, there are more self-made millionaires (and billionaires!) in the United States than ever before. According to the Forbes 2021 list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women, the fortunes of America’s most wealthy self-made females rose 31% from the previous year, with a record number of 26 ranking as billionaires. Take Judy Faulkner for example, founder and CEO of America’s leading medical-record software provider, Epic. With a current net worth of $5.3 billion, Faulkner is America’s second wealthiest self-made woman.

While most of us aren’t millionaires or billionaires, according to a recent survey, American women are expected to control much of the $30 trillion in financial assets that baby boomers will possess by the year 2030. Women in the U.S. currently control about a third of total household financial assets (over $10 trillion), but that number is expected to increase as money exchanges hands in the coming decades. This shift will be driven primarily by demographics, as roughly 70 percent of investable assets are currently controlled by aging baby boomers who will likely cede their assets to female spouses when they pass.

“My mission in life is not merely to survive but to thrive and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” -Maya Angelou


Breaking the Glass Ceiling

In addition to women managing an increasing amount of wealth in the U.S., they are also making huge career advancements, heading up major corporations and holding positions historically held by men. Take for example Janet Yellen who we quoted earlier. In 2014, Yellen became the first female chair of the Federal Reserve in its 100-year history.
Additional to securing these top positions, data shows that women are starting and running new businesses at a rapid rate. According to the Small Business Trends survey results for 2021, women own 31% of small businesses or franchises in the US. Furthermore, last year alone, 17% of women launched a business.

Final Thoughts

What does the future hold? While we can’t predict with complete accuracy, the course of history has women on an upward trajectory. There is plenty of work to be done, but these facts are undeniable: The wage gap is shrinking, women control more wealth than ever before, and the glass ceiling is losing shards by the day.

At Treehouse Wealth Advisors, we know that the world of finance has historically been an uneven playing field, but we think it’s time that changed. We know there’s no simple Band-Aid solution, no quick fix to the years of inequality and inequity, but we also know that women are strong, resilient, and determined. History has shown us that, despite the last 100+ years of struggle, women have not backed down, and we are confident that the future will show continued ferocity in the fight for equality.

Our female-led advisory team is prepared to support the strong women of today and tomorrow, and that includes ensuring that you have a plan in place that guides and supports your life goals so that you can confidently conquer everything that comes your way. Reach out for help creating your plan.

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