Fewer women in the US are going to work. But while that might sound like a trend to make Gloria Steinem weep, it could actually be a step toward gender equality.
The number of women working or actively looking for work has been drifting downward since 2000, according to data the US Census Bureau analyzed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond last month. Labor force participation for women hovers around 56% in 2015, down from just under 60% 15 years ago.
Single women have driven a significant portion of the decline. While the overall women’s participation rate dropped 3.5 percentage points between 2000 and 2015, single women’s participation rate dropped 6 percentage points during the same time period.
But the key question is what women have been doing instead of working. And as it turns out, a lot of them have been heading for the classroom.
The Richmond Fed analysis published last month found a sharp rise in the percentage of single women in high school, college and graduate school. The percentage rose from 10% in 2000 to 15% in 2015. That jump almost matches the decline in single women’s labor force participation.
The news is of a piece with broader educational trends. The Census Bureau recently found that in 2014, for the first time, women became more likely than men to have a bachelor’s degree.
These developments suggest a brighter future for women in the work force. Studies have found that higher education makes a big difference in people’s ability to get or keep a job.
A graph of unemployment rates over the past 20 years published early this month by the Wall Street Journal, for example, reveals a striking pattern. Americans over age 25 with less than a high school diploma are disproportionately affected by economic fluctuations. During the most recent recession, they suffered three times the level of job loss as those with a college degree.
Moreover, people with a college degree more likely to be employed than those who have only some college experience, who are in turn more likely to have a job than people with high school diplomas.
How much education you have also affects how much you earn. People with less than a high school diploma earned a median $488 a week in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s less than half the $1,101 a week earned by college graduates and less than one-third of the $1,639 a week earned by those with a professional degree.
Education doesn’t guarantee gender equality in the workplace, however. The gender pay gap persists in the US even when education, experience and type of job are factored in, according to the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers. In 2014, women made only 79 cents for every dollar earned by women (PDF), the Census Bureau found.
The wage gap is even larger when you divide it by ethnicity, according to a Council of Economic Advisers report issued in April. Black women earn 64 cents for every dollar earned by white men, while Latina women earn 56 cents.
What’s more, higher education may not make much of a difference in closing the wage gap. The gap widens among the best-educated men and women, according to a 2015 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (PDF).
That said, getting more education will still boost women’s earnings compared to what they would have otherwise made.
“I see the development of more women going to school as a positive one,” Marianna Kudlyak, a Richmond Fed economist and one of the study’s authors, told Quartz in an email. She cites recent studies showing that “middle-skill” occupations, which require more than a high school education but less than a college degree, are quickly disappearing. This makes it harder for Americans with less education to earn a living. “More schooling provides better opportunities for higher-wage employment.”