In 2020, the share of women who participated in the labor force fell by 1.2 percentage points to 56.2 percent, the lowest rate since 1987, and nearly 4 percentage points below the peak of 60.0 percent in 1999. By comparison, the labor force participation rate for men was 67.7 percent in 2020, down by 1.5 percentage points from the previous year and the lowest rate in the history of the series. (Both series began in 1948.) The steep declines in 2020 reflect the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the labor market.
The rapid rise in women’s labor force participation was a major development in the labor market during the second half of the 20th century. Overall, women’s labor force participation increased dramatically from the 1960s through the 1980s, before slowing in the 1990s and early 2000s. Labor force participation among women then began a decline that accelerated in the wake of the December 2007–June 2009 recession, hitting a prepandemic low in 2015 at 56.7 percent. The rate then rose to 57.4 percent in 2019, before the pandemic affected the labor market.
Women’s involvement in the labor market has changed in notable ways over the past several decades. For example, women became much more likely to pursue higher levels of education: from 1970 to 2020, the proportion of women ages 25 to 64 in the labor force who held a college degree more than quadrupled, whereas the proportion of men with a college degree more than doubled over that time. Women also have become more likely to work full time and year round. In addition, women’s earnings as a proportion of men’s earnings have grown over time: women working full time earned 62.3 percent of what men earned in 1979 and 82.3 percent in 2020. More recently, over the past decade or so, women in the baby boom generation (defined as people born between 1946 and 1964) began to retire in large numbers, which had put downward pressure on their labor force participation rate.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the job market in 2020 were widespread and varied by gender and across race and ethnicity groups. For example, women were disproportionally affected by the pandemic-induced recession in the spring of 2020, in part reflecting their overrepresentation in some of the hardest hit sectors of the economy.1
In addition to the effects of the pandemic, there are long-standing labor market differences among demographic groups. These differences are associated with many factors, not all of which are measurable. These factors include variations in educational attainment, the occupations and industries in which the groups work, the geographic areas of the country in which the groups are concentrated, and the degree of discrimination encountered in the workplace.
This report presents historical and recent labor force and earnings data for women and men from the Current Population Survey (CPS), a national monthly survey of approximately 60,000 households conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unless otherwise noted, data are annual averages from the CPS. (For a detailed description of the source of the data and an explanation of concepts and definitions used, see the technical notes.)
Selected demographic characteristics
Women’s labor force participation rate was 56.2 percent in 2020, 1.2 percentage points lower than the rate in 2019. Men’s labor force participation rate, which always has been much higher than that for women, also decreased in 2020; the rate for men was down by 1.5 percentage points to 67.7 percent. These declines in labor force participation reflect the impact of the pandemic on the labor market. (See table 2.)
The unemployment rate for women was 8.3 percent in 2020, more than double the rate from a year earlier. The rate for men was 7.8 percent in 2020, also more than double the rate from a year earlier. Women’s unemployment rates varied considerably by race and ethnicity. In 2020, Hispanic women and Black women had the highest jobless rates (11.4 percent and 10.9 percent, respectively). Unemployment rates for Asian women and White women were lower, at 9.6 percent and 7.6 percent, respectively. Men’s unemployment rates exhibited a similar pattern. The rates for Black men (12.1 percent) and Hispanic men (9.7 percent) were higher than those for Asian men (7.8 percent) and White men (7.0 percent). (See tables 2 and 3.)
Labor force participation varies by marital status and differs between women and men. Never-married women had the highest participation rate of all women, at 63.5 percent in 2020. Separated and divorced women were more likely to participate in the labor force (61.7 percent and 59.7 percent, respectively) than married women (57.4 percent). Across all marital statuses, men were more likely to participate in the labor force than their female counterparts. Married men were more likely to participate in the labor force (71.4 percent) than separated men (69.8 percent), never-married men (66.3 percent), and divorced men (63.6 percent). Labor force participation rates for widowed women and men, who tend to be older, were 17.9 percent and 23.3 percent, respectively. (See table 4.)
The labor force participation rate for women with children under 18 years of age was 72.5 percent in March 2020, much lower than the rate of 93.1 percent for men with children under 18 years. Among mothers, the labor force participation rate for those with children 6 to 17 years old, at 76.4 percent, was considerably higher than for those with younger children. The rate for women with children under 6 years old was 67.4 percent, and the rate for women with children under 3 years old was 65.6 percent. By contrast, the labor force participation rate for fathers was similar regardless of the age of their children; the rate was 92.0 percent for fathers with children 6 to 17 years old, 94.5 percent for fathers of children under 6 years old, and 94.7 percent for fathers of children under 3 years old. (See tables 5 and 7; data were collected in the 2020 Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the CPS.)
Unmarried mothers are much more likely to participate in the labor force than married mothers. In March 2020, 77.7 percent of unmarried mothers were in the labor force, compared with 70.4 percent of married mothers. (See table 6; data were collected in the 2020 Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the CPS.)
The educational attainment of women ages 25 to 64 in the labor force has risen substantially over the past half century. In 2020, 47.2 percent of women ages 25 to 64 held a bachelor’s degree and higher, compared with 11.2 percent in 1970. In 2020, 4.8 percent of women in the labor force had less than a high school diploma—that is, they did not graduate from high school or earn a GED—down from 33.5 percent in 1970. (See tables 9A and 9B.)
Occupation and industry
Women accounted for 51.7 percent of all workers employed in management, professional, and related occupations in 2020, somewhat more than their share of total employment (46.8 percent). The share of women in specific occupations within this large category varied. For example, 19.4 percent of software developers, 29.3 percent of chief executives, and 37.4 percent of lawyers were women. Whereas 87.4 percent of registered nurses, 79.6 percent of elementary and middle school teachers, and 59.7 percent of accountants and auditors were women. (See table 11.)
In 2020, Asian women and White women were more likely to work in higher paying management, professional, and related occupations (56.6 percent and 48.4 percent, respectively) than were Black women (40.2 percent) and Hispanic women (31.3 percent). Black women (25.3 percent) and Hispanic women (27.9 percent) were more likely than Asian women (17.3 percent) and White women (17.6 percent) to work in lower paying service occupations. (See table 12.)
By industry, women accounted for more than half of all workers within several sectors in 2020: education and health services (74.6 percent), other services (52.6 percent), financial activities (51.9 percent), and leisure and hospitality (50.4 percent). (Other services include repair and maintenance services, personal and laundry services, membership associations and organizations, and private households.) Comparably, women were substantially underrepresented (relative to their share of total employment) in manufacturing (29.5 percent), agriculture (27.7 percent), transportation and utilities (24.1 percent), mining (14.5 percent), and construction (10.9 percent). (See table 14.)
In 2020, women who worked full time in wage and salary jobs had median usual weekly earnings of $891, which represented 82.3 percent of men’s median weekly earnings ($1,082). Among women, earnings were higher for Asians ($1,143) than for Whites ($905), Blacks ($764), and Hispanics ($705). Women-to-men’s earnings ratios were higher for Blacks (92.0 percent) and Hispanics (88.5 percent) than for Whites (81.5 percent) and Asians (79.0 percent). (See table 16; note that the comparisons of earnings in this report are on a broad level and do not control for many factors, like occupation, that may be important in explaining earnings differences.)
Women’s median usual weekly earnings vary by educational attainment. In 2020, female full-time wage and salary workers age 25 and older with less than a high school diploma had median weekly earnings of $525. Women whose highest degree was a high school diploma had earnings of $671, those with an associate’s degree had earnings of $809, and those with a bachelor’s degree and higher had earnings of $1,239. (See table 17.)
By occupation, median usual weekly earnings of female full-time wage and salary workers were the highest in 2020 for pharmacists ($2,160), chief executives ($2,051), computer and information systems managers ($1,910), other physicians ($1,905), and physician assistants ($1,894). Earnings for men were highest for chief executives ($2,712), lawyers ($2,324), other physicians ($2,311), and pharmacists ($2,286). (See table 18.)
In 2020, 2.0 percent of women who were paid hourly rates had earnings at or below the prevailing federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour). Among women ages 16 to 24 who were paid an hourly rate, 5.3 percent had earnings at or below the minimum wage, compared with 1.3 percent of women age 25 and over. (See table 20.)
Data in this report for the year 2020 reflect the impact of the pandemic on the labor market. Comparisons with data from prior years should be interpreted with caution. Large declines in employment in 2020, particularly among low-wage workers (who were disproportionately affected by job loss related to the pandemic), resulted in changes in the median earnings distribution. This large and abrupt shift in the earnings distribution during the year manifested as an increase in the rate of earnings growth in 2020. However, the underlying rate of growth in workers’ median weekly earnings during the year is more difficult to discern because of the sudden, dramatic shift in the earnings distribution. More information is available at https://www.bls.gov/covid19/effects-of-covid-19-pandemic-and-response-on-the-employment-situation-news-release.htm.
Hours of work
Women are more likely than men to usually work part time—that is, less than 35 hours per week. In 2020, 22.4 percent of employed women usually worked part time. By comparison, 11.6 percent of employed men usually worked part time. (See table 21.)
Of all women who worked at some point during the calendar year of 2019, 64.5 percent worked full time and year round (50 to 52 weeks), compared with 40.7 percent in 1970. The proportion of men who worked full time and year round also rose over the period, from 66.1 percent in 1970 to 75.4 percent in 2019. (See table 23; data were collected in the 1971 through 2020 Annual Social and Economic Supplements to the CPS and reflect earnings and work experience in the previous calendar year.)
Among opposite-sex married-couple families, 54.0 percent had earnings from both the wife and the husband in 2019. This percentage, which has changed little over the past 10 years, is below the peak of 60.4 percent in 1996 but above the 43.6 percent seen in 1967 when the series began. Couples in which only the husband worked for pay represented 16.9 percent of married-couple families in 2019 versus 35.6 percent in 1967. (See table 24B; data were collected in the 1968 through 2020 Annual Social and Economic Supplements to the CPS and reflect earnings and work experience in the previous calendar year.)
The working poor
Among people who were in the labor force for at least 27 weeks in 2019, more women (3.4 million) than men (2.9 million) lived below the official poverty level. The working-poor rate (the ratio of the working poor to all individuals who were in the labor force for at least 27 weeks) was 4.5 percent for women and 3.5 percent for men. Black women and Hispanic women were much more likely to be among the working poor than White women or Asian women. The working-poor rates for Black women and Hispanic women were 8.9 percent and 7.1 percent, respectively, higher than the rates of 3.7 percent for White women and 2.3 percent for Asian women. (See table 26; data are from the 2020 Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the CPS and reflect earnings and work experience in the previous calendar year.)
From January 2017 through December 2019, 2.7 million workers age 20 and older were displaced from jobs they had held for at least 3 years; women accounted for 45 percent of those displaced. Labor market outcomes were similar for displaced women and men. Displaced women were about as likely as men to have found a new job in January 2020: the reemployment rate was 67.8 percent for women and 71.9 percent for men. Displaced women and men were also about equally likely to be unemployed, at 12.5 percent and 12.3 percent, respectively. In January 2020, 19.7 percent of displaced women and 15.7 percent of displaced men had left the labor force. (See table 27; data are from the January 2020 Displaced Worker, Employee Tenure, and Occupational Mobility Supplement to the CPS.)
In January 2020, the median number of years that employed women had been with their employers was 3.9 years, about unchanged from January 2018. Median employee tenure (the point at which half of all workers had more tenure and half had less tenure) for men held at 4.3 years. (See table 28; data are from the January 2020 Displaced Worker, Employee Tenure, and Occupational Mobility Supplement to the CPS.)
Of the 3.1 million young people ages 16 to 24 who graduated from high school between January and October 2020, 62.7 percent (2.0 million) were enrolled in college in October of that year. For the 2020 high school graduates, the college enrollment rate continued to be higher for young women (66.2 percent) than for young men (59.3 percent). (See table 29; data are from the October 2020 School Enrollment Supplement to the CPS.)
Among those enrolled in high school, young women were more likely to be in the labor force (24.8 percent) in October 2020 than were young men (20.8 percent). Among college students, women were much more likely to participate in the labor force than men, at 49.7 percent and 42.2 percent, respectively. Among young people ages 16 to 24 who were not enrolled in school in October 2020, the unemployment rate for those without a high school diploma was 11.2 percent for women and 10.2 percent for men. In contrast, the unemployment rates for young women and men with at least a bachelor’s degree were 7.9 percent and 8.6 percent, respectively. (See table 30; data are from the October 2020 School Enrollment Supplement to the CPS.)
Multiple jobholders and the self-employed
In 2020, 6.7 million workers had more than one job. Just over half (3.4 million) of these workers were women. The multiple jobholding rate for women, at 5.0 percent, was higher than that for men, at 4.1 percent. (See table 31.)
In 2020, 5.2 percent of working women in nonagricultural industries were self-employed, compared with 6.5 percent of men. In 2020, 41.6 percent of the self-employed were women, compared with 26.8 percent in 1976. (See table 32.)
Foreign-born women were less likely than native-born women to be in the labor force in 2020 (53.2 percent compared with 56.8 percent). By contrast, foreign-born men were more likely to be in the labor force (76.6 percent) than were native-born men (65.9 percent). The unemployment rate for foreign-born women, at 10.8 percent, was higher than for native-born women, at 7.9 percent. At 8.0 percent, the unemployment rate for foreign-born men was about the same as that for native-born men (7.8 percent). Differences in labor force indicators reflect a variety of factors, including variations in the distributions of foreign-born and native-born workers by age, educational attainment, occupation, industry, and geographic region. (See table 33.)
In 2020, 10.5 percent of female wage and salary workers were members of unions, compared with 11.0 percent of their male counterparts. For both women and men, the union membership rate in 2020 was lower than in 1983 (the first year that union membership data were regularly collected in the CPS). In 1983, union membership rates were 14.6 percent for women and 24.7 percent for men. (See table 34.)
There were 1.1 million female veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces in the labor force in 2020, accounting for 12.3 percent of the 8.9 million veterans in the labor force. Nearly half of all female veterans in the labor force in 2020 served during the Gulf War-era II period (September 2001 to present). The labor force participation rate among female Gulf War-era II veterans was 68.6 percent, significantly lower than the 80.8 percent participation from their male counterparts. Among Gulf War-era II veterans, the unemployment rate for women was 7.2 percent in 2020, similar to the rate of 7.4 percent for men. (See table 35.)
People with disabilities
Of the 15.9 million women with disabilities in 2020, 2.8 million, or 17.5 percent, participated in the labor force. A little over half of women with disabilities (54 percent) were age 65 and older; labor force participation among this age group was 5.4 percent, compared with 31.5 percent for those ages 16 to 64 with disabilities. Among the 14.0 million men with disabilities, 23.8 percent participated in the labor force in 2020. Forty-seven percent of men with disabilities were age 65 and older. Among men in this age group, 10.5 percent were labor force participants, compared with 35.6 percent of men ages 16 to 64 with disabilities. Among people with a disability, the unemployment rate for women, at 13.2 percent, was higher than that for men, at 12.0 percent. These rates were considerably higher than the rates of women and men without a disability (8.2 percent and 7.6 percent, respectively). (See table 36.)