The strongest job market in 50 years is drawing in both men and women who are in their prime working years but on the sidelines, including discouraged Americans and disabled people.
But 25- to 54-year-old women are joining, or returning to, the labor force in even greater numbers than their male counterparts, encouraged by a welcome trend: higher salaries and more flexible work arrangements.
As companies face intensifying worker shortages they’re trying to accommodate employees raising children and caring for older people, experts say.
“In a tight labor market, women can better bargain with their employers,” says Martha Gimbel, research director of the Hiring Lab at Indeed, the giant job-posting site.
That means women can negotiate higher wages that allow them to afford day care services, as well as flexible arrangements that let them work from home or leave mid-afternoon to pick up their kids, Gimbel says.
This year, Well Done Marketing, an Indianapolis-based advertising agency, began offering unlimited paid time off, and policies that allow its 27 employees to work from home or take breaks more often, says company public relations director Casey Cawthon. The moves are largely tailored to women caring for children or aging parents.
“It has been harder than in the past to hire people with the specific talents we need,” says company President Lisa Vielee. “Having some of these benefits helps us stand out in an industry not exactly known for work-life balance.”
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A handful of states now require businesses to offer paid family leave, and more than 100 major companies voluntarily provide the benefit, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. As a result, the group says, 17% of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave through their employers, up from 12% in 2014.
The share of 25- to 54-year-old women working or looking for jobs has increased from 73.4% in March 2015 to 75.7% this past March. That means their labor force participation rate now exceeds prerecession levels, though it still falls short of the peak reached in 2000, according to an analysis by the Hamilton Project at Brookings Institution.
Women have recovered 70% of the decline in their participation rate from 2000 to 2015, a drop partly blamed on recessions in 2001 and 2007-09, the study says.
The share of prime-age men in the labor force has also risen since March 2015 but less sharply, from 88.5% to 89.5%. That rate is still below prerecession levels. And men aged 25-54 have recouped just 31% if the drop in their participation from 2000 to 2015, the Hamilton Project study shows.
The Labor Department will release the latest figures for April in its Friday employment report, which economists estimate will reveal 190,000 job gains last month.
The rate for women is outpacing men chiefly because a third of the increase for women can be traced to the strides they’ve made in handling family responsibilities while working, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
Just 13% of the gain for men stems from that reason. Both men and women are benefiting fairly equally as discouraged workers and people with disabilities or illnesses come back to the strengthening labor market, the Atlanta Fed analysis shows.
Other reasons a faster-growing share of women than men are working or looking for jobs:
• Some industries dominated by female workers have been growing jobs rapidly, including healthcare, local government and K-12 teaching, says economist Sophia Koropeckyj of Moody’s Analytics.
• From 2013 to 2018, the portion of women aged 25 to 34 with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees has increased from 37.8% to 42.7%, providing them more job opportunities, Koropeckyj says, citing Census Bureau figures
• The opioid crisis may be preventing more men from returning to the labor force, says Ryan Nunn, policy director at the Hamilton Project.