How women can restore America’s middle class

June 11, 2015, 9:00 AM UTC
Businesswomen leaning on table discussing plans
Photo by Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

Before World War II raged, 12 million women comprised a quarter of America’s workforce. Conflagration drew another 6 million into the war effort. Many became Rosie the Riveter at factories, ably replacing men sent abroad. Women didn’t just fire rivet guns. They ran farms and 3 million worked for the Red Cross. Another 200,000 served in uniform.

When peace reigned, the old order returned, sending millions of women back home or to lower paying jobs. Many wanted careers, but middle class families seemed determined to carry on with one breadwinner. During the 1950s, one woman in three entered the workforce.

The 1960s changed things. Within months of the birth control pill’s approval, President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women exposed wage gaps that women had endured. Kennedy tackled education, Social Security benefits, and hiring practices; uncovering ample evidence of discrimination.

Within a year, the Equal Rights Act was amended to prohibit gender-based wage discrimination. As Kennedy signed the 1963 Equal Pay Act, women earned 58 cents for every dollar a man did.

President Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act included language preventing discrimination against women. Courts tackled reproductive rights yet women continued to face unfair practices as a matter of routine.

But history has a funny way of breaking what will not bend.

In the 1960s, 70% of families had a stay at home parent. The intervening fifty years reversed that and more. Women in the United States have positioned themselves to run things. Forget your glass ceilings, this is the new Feminomics.

By spring 2010, women comprised 51% of America’s professional workers (up from 26% in 1980). And they are just getting warmed up.

Today 70% of American women with children earn a paycheck. Millions more American women are attending college than men. At 1950 graduations 120,796 women earned 24% of the college degrees. By 2009, women earned 60% of the sheepskins and 1,849,200 degrees.


Fifty years ago, 40% of women got bachelor’s degrees in education and 2% in business. Now it is 12 % education and 50% business.

In graduate schools, women earn 60% of the master’s degrees and half the PhDs. Medical schools report that women hold 51% of the seats and at law schools women represent just under half of their enrollment. More than 100,000 women take GMAT tests to get MBA’s. In 1997, women were 39% of MBA students. By 2007 the number exceeded 44%.

These leadership degrees mean that women have gone from looking for jobs to looking for careers. Now 40% of all households in this country have a woman as the sole or lead breadwinner—heading towards majority.

Most accountants are women, a third of physicians and 45% of the associates in law firms. Already women hold most banking and insurance jobs.

Yet women comprise only 20% of the math, science, and technology majors, and just 14% of Fortune 500 officer positions (3% of CEO slots). Only 16% of Fortune 500 board seats are occupied by women.

The time has come for an economic empowerment zone for women.

Lack of leadership on job creation has brought labor force participation rates to new lows for both sexes. Women’s participation rate is steady at 55%, but unemployment among young black women exceeds 20%. And 15% of young Latina women are unemployed.

Young white women are doing as poorly as young white males—11% are unemployed.

Still, women control 85% of purchasing decisions — $7 trillion in spending. And they are crucial to home economics. In the 1970s women contributed 2 to 6% of the family income. Today, it’s 42%. Often women determine who maintains their middle-class status. In 2005, over 77% of top quintile families had two or more wage earners.

That’s why closing the wage gap is a vital ingredient of middle-class revival.

What bean counters who decry the economic benefit of higher education ignore is that college is the best cure for unemployment. Risk is left out of their equations— not so for American women. Our economy is dependent on building a wider skill base. Workers who educate and retrain themselves will benefit in this war for talent. Women are leading the way.

Some studies show women as more willing to train for new careers after layoffs. But those studies are too localized to be determinative.

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With millions more women than men attending college, greater flexibility for career change and renewal training, and their leadership in business creation women have become the vital flex factor in the labor force.

It makes no economic sense to pay them less. Pay parity will boost our economy.

We are way past Mommy-care. Corporations must coordinate work with child care–telecommuting, flexible hours, child-related leaves of absence must be offered as a matter of course. If not women will go out on their own.

In the past decade, women have started more privately owned companies than men at a rate of two to one. (Yet 75% of venture capital goes to men.) Women-owned enterprises employ nearly 8 million people and have combined revenues of $1.4 trillion according to a study commissioned by American Express Open. Every minute of the day a woman starts a new business in this country.

But trouble lurks for poor working mothers. Public and private-sector initiatives don’t touch them. They can’t get benefits from female-friendly companies. Child care is too expensive. Families cope with school-days that bear no relationship to their workday. And 72% of black children are born to single moms.

Economic necessity and doing the right thing will converge as a matter of economic empowerment. Paying women what they deserve is the best boost for our middle class and the key to restoring our economy.

Peter D. Kiernan is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and advisor to businesses and government. He is author of the book, American Mojo: Lost and Found—Restoring our Middle Class Before the World Blows By.

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