Here's How Much Progress Working Women Have Made in the Past 90 Years

Working women have garnered a lot of press recently, particularly with last week’s release of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s much-publicized manifesto, Lean In. Sandberg’s “performance review” of working women offers practical advice to help women avoid the concessions they often make in the workplace, pitfalls that can hinder their career growth and leave the notorious glass ceiling firmly in place. Sandberg encourages women to “lean in” to gender-based challenges claim their place at the table. Sandberg’s book highlights the continuing gender gap in the amount of power and kinds of careers men and women typically hold. But as we consider what work remains in the fight for true equality, it’s also worth taking a look at where we started and how far we’ve come.

It’s been more than 90 years since June 5, 1920, when the Women’s Bureau was established. Then, the number of working women was one-third what it is today, and the number of educated female workers was even lower. (This, of course, doesn’t take into account traditionally gendered and unpaid work such as household chores and child care.) But although women have made enormous strides creating space for themselves in the workforce, they still haven’t achieved parity in traditionally male-dominated fields and positions, particularly the most high-paying professions.

First, let’s look at what we’ve already achieved. In terms of general workforce participation, the gender balance today is wildly different from 90 years ago. In 1920, women were 21% of the workforce; in 2010, they were 47%. It’s no surprise that more women are in the workforce today than 90 years ago, or, perhaps more to the point, that women are far more financially independent than in 1920. By raw percentage of workers, men and women, are nearly even.   

A persistent gender imbalance kicks in when we look more closely at the type of work women are doing. In 1920, most working women held jobs that required little to no formal education: They were laundresses, farm laborers, clerical workers, and so on. Shifts in technology, economic trends, and education have certainly changed women’s jobs options, but where have they gone instead?

Fast forward to 1972, a little over halfway between 1920 and the present. Forty years ago, women had gained ground in more specialized areas such as government and finance, and they’ve continued to increase their numbers since. Those sectors have also maintained a more or less constant presence in the labor marketplace. But what’s also striking is that in 1972, women comprised about 75% of education and health service employees. That number is almost exactly the same today, the difference is that those sectors account for twice as many jobs than they did forty years ago.

Women have reaped enormous gains from those economic changes, but they remain underrepresented in other areas, particularly high-power, high-pay positions. More women may be in government, but less than 20% of Congress is female. And despite a growing presence in business and finance, women hold a little over 14% of executive officer positions in Fortune 500 companies (a number that has stagnated in recent years).) Women also haven’t made large gains in traditionally male fields. Technology boasts an ever-increasing share of the labor market, but only 25% of industry workers are female. And while women found businesses at 1.5 times the national average, only 3-5% of women-owned businesses receive venture capital funding.

How much progress have working women made in the past 90 years? A lot. They’ve normalized their presence in the workforce, they’ve expanded their career options, and they’ve achieved unprecedented levels of education and financial independence. But a gender disparity remains in technology, and in the highest echelons of business, finance, and government, the most powerful forces in our modern economy.

Writers, politicians, and businesswomen such as Sandberg have proposed ways to close the gap in power and pay: we need more flexible career tracks for mothers and a less-gendered split of household chores in families; we need to train women to be more effective negotiators and teach girls they can do math and science, too; we need to tell women to lean in to take their place at the table.

We haven’t yet seen which combinations of strategies will prove most effective. What we do know is, while we work in an exponentially more egalitarian world than in 1920, a long push remains. Here’s to true equity in the next 90 years.