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Women in the Labor Force

Family-friendly policies in Europe might account for slipping U.S. rank: research

workingwomen_webAre American women making headway in the workplace?

Yes and no, according to new research by ILR Professors Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn.

Although women in the United States are more likely to hold managerial or professional jobs than women in other developed countries, they are less likely to be working than women in 16 other nations, the researchers learned.

The United States' slide from a rank of six to 17 for women's labor force participation out of 22 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations between 1990 and 2010 could be a reflection of more advanced work-life policies in these other countries, Blau and Kahn conclude in "Female Labor Supply: Why is the U.S. Falling Behind?"

After dramatic gains in the 1970s and 1980s, the percentage of women working in the United States crept up by just 1.2 percentage points to 75.2 percent between 1990 and 2010, according to statistics used in the report.

Meanwhile, women in Spain, Italy, Germany and France posted double-digit gains.

Between 1990 and 2010, parental leave for American workers went from zero to 12 weeks; in 16 other countries, parental leave increased from 37 weeks to 57 weeks, on average.

Longer parental leaves, job protections for part-time workers and government-subsidized child care appear to increase the percentage of working European women, Blau and Kahn found.

However, "… there may be a tradeoff between some policies that make it easier for women to combine work and family and women's advancement at work," the authors conclude.

Entitlements to long paid parental leaves and part-time work might attract European women to options that reduce their consideration for high-level positions requiring long-term, full-time commitments, Blau and Kahn said.

They explained that the same policies that facilitate part-time work might also compromise careers through statistical discrimination by employers who cannot tell which women workers might be good candidates for higher-level positions, the researchers said.

Blau and Kahn presented the paper at the January meetings of the American Economic Association in San Diego, Calif.

Blau, a 1966 graduate of ILR, is Cornell's Frances Perkins Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics. Kahn is the Braunstein Family Professor and Professor of Economics and Labor Relations.