In Box


A brief history of women in the workplace.


With midterm campaigns nearing their climax, President Barack Obama was in Washington state on Thursday to talk to one of his most important constituents these days: women. Amid his West-coast campaign tour for Democrat congressional candidates, Obama took the opportunity to nod to the defining economic narrative of the last 50 years: the entrance of the female half of the population into the workplace.

The White House just released a new policy paper on its economic strategy for women, detailing how it will push for better access to loans, education, and equality in the workplace. “As the majority of college graduates and nearly 50 percent of the workforce, women are in a position to drive our 21st century economy,” the paper proclaims.

But this coming of age didn’t happen overnight. During World War II, women started working out of necessity; they stayed when jobs became careers. They were hired in a hunt for “diversity” and kept because of their talent. The result has been a world-changing revolution. Today, women are not just good for the bottom line: They’re fundamental to bringing nations out of poverty, and they just might be the future of work. Here’s how it all began.

1942: With America’s men away at war, women take up civilian jobs at home. Between 1940 and 1950, the proportion of married women ages 45 to 55 in the workforce doubles from 10 to 20 percent. In Britain, about 9 out of 10 single women and 8 of 10 married women are employed.

1954: Future Nobel laureate W. Arthur Lewis argues, “One of the surest ways of increasing the national income” is for women to work outside the home. The Soviet Union takes such advice to heart; by 1970, 9 out of 10 Russian women ages 16 to 54 are either in school or the workplace.

The Library of Congress/flickr

June 10, 1963: U.S. President John F. Kennedy signs the Equal Pay Act, which attempts to end the gender gap in wages. At the time, an American woman earns about 60 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

1976: Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus begins his first experiments with microcredit, with a focus on teaching disadvantaged Bangladeshi women how to manage small amounts of money.

National Archive/Newsmakers

1979: With women holding management positions in U.S. companies at just half the rate of men, two women at Hewlett-Packard, Katherine Lawrence and Marianne Schreiber, coin the term “glass ceiling.”

1994: Lawrence Summers, then chief economist at the World Bank, finds that educating women and girls is, dollar for dollar, far more efficient at reducing poverty and boosting social indicators than big infrastructure projects.


May 18, 1998: Newsweek coins the term “womenomics,” arguing that the Asian financial crisis has been a blessing in disguise: Japanese women join the labor force in droves, at cheaper salaries than men.

August 13, 1999: Portfolio manager Kathy Matsui authors a report on Japan for Goldman Sachs: “Women-omics: Buy the Female Economy.” Over the next seven years, her recommended investments wildly outperform the Japanese market as a whole.


September 2000: The U.N. General Assembly adopts the Millennium Development Goals, a set of anti-poverty targets for 2015 that officially enshrine the idea that women are instrumental to societal well-being.

April 12, 2006: The Economist turns a concept into a buzzword with “A Guide to Womenomics,” noting that women represent a mere 15 percent of directors on U.S. corporate boards and just 7 percent worldwide. The buzzword becomes Womenomics, a book by two journalists, three years later.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

2009: Pundits dub the global financial crisis the “he-cession,” as the economic downturn hits men harder than women. Writing in FP, Reihan Salam says, “For years, the world has been witnessing a quiet but monumental shift of power from men to women.” A year later in the Atlantic, Hanna Rosin takes the argument a step further, asking: “What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women?”

September 2010: Worldwide, an estimated 70 percent of women now regularly work outside the home and in many places are the majority of university graduates. These gains are paying off for developing countries’ GDPs, but not always for women themselves, who still make about 20 percent less than men in the U.S. and, Sarah Palin aside, lack opportunities in political life. In a whopping 75 percent of parliaments worldwide, less than a quarter of all seats are occupied by women.


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