America’s female workers deserve more appreciation: They’re playing a crucial role in helping the U.S. economy grow without stoking unwanted inflation.
By many measures, the U.S. is at or near full employment, the point at which demand for workers should push up wages and prices. The unemployment rate is at an extremely low 3.9 percent, and the number of available workers per job opening has declined to one, from more than six in the depths of the last recession. Yet wages haven’t responded as expected: Average hourly earnings were up 2.9 percent in August from a year earlier, more than in previous months but still well short of their pre-crisis growth rate.
Why the disconnect? One explanation is that people who weren’t counted as unemployed, because they weren’t actively seeking work, are coming off the sidelines and taking the jobs on offer. Women have made by far the biggest contribution. The share of females aged 25 to 54 either working or seeking work, also known as the prime-age labor participation rate, averaged 75.4 percent in the three months through August. That’s up from 73.6 percent three years earlier — a change that, together with population growth, amounts to almost 400,000 added workers.
It’s hard to know exactly why women have outperformed, but it’s possible to make some guesses. For one, they tend to stay out of the labor force to handle domestic tasks such as caring for children or relatives — something they can pay others to do if the right job comes along. Men, by contrast, tend to leave the workforce because of illness or disability, situations that often can’t be reversed. Also, women have more of the social skills that an evolving economy increasingly requires.