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.)

Educational attainment

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