In the past couple of decades, women have been gaining ground in highly skilled occupations throughout the US economy. For example, women account for roughly 40% of the country’s physicians and surgeons, up from about 26% in the late 1990s, according to a Quartz analysis of data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While female representation in the American labor force overall hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years (they account for 46% of US workers versus 45% two decades ago), today you are far more likely to find women working as compliance officers, psychologists, marketing managers, and architects, among other occupations that have seen big increases in participation by women.
Education is driving the trend. Since 2000, the college enrollment rate has been higher for women than men. A full 57% of college degrees awarded in 2018 were given to women, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That same year, for the first time since 2004, women accounted for the majority of US medical school applicants.
The effect is a breaking up of the boys’ club in traditionally male-dominated fields, particularly in science and healthcare. The share of physical scientists who are women has increased from 28% in 1997 to 1999 to 45% in 2017 to 2019, while the share of pharmacists who are women has risen from 47% to 61%. (The numbers are estimates based on monthly surveys collected by the US government that are representative of the US population.)
Many of these occupations offer flexibility in schedules and stable pay. A 2016 study by Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Kratz found pharmacist jobs, for example, to be “family-friendly.” And that’s highly attractive to women, particularly when raising children.
Although American women are, on average, having fewer children than they used to, more women are becoming mothers than ever before, notes Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter.
“Now [more] women are really having it all,” she says. And many of them, along with many men, “are finding that in fields that require you to work 60 hour weeks or, you know, be available around the clock, just doesn’t work.”
Conditions in the healthcare industry also have become more favorable for women, Pollak says. In recent years, the consolidation of healthcare organizations led to a rapid increase in the share of physicians employed by hospitals, from 25.8% in 2012 to 44% in 2018, according to the Physicians Advocacy Institute. Pollak says that for many woman, especially those who tend to be more risk averse, working in a hospital setting is preferable to owning a practice. And there may be less sexism involved when it comes to finding a physician through a hospital rather than choosing one from a private practice, as the names are not as prominently displayed, Pollak adds.
Meanwhile, the dramatic increase in the share of compliance officer roles held by women—from 34% in the late 1990s to 56% today—can be explained in part by the large number of these jobs that are concentrated in state and federal government, where gender diversity is routinely tracked.
Encouragingly, women are making up a bigger share of American jobs that pay more than most. For instance, the median income for psychologists was $79,000 in 2018, and for physical scientists it was $107,000. (The median income for all US workers was about $39,000.)
A 2011 study from the US Department of Commerce found the wage gap between men and women is narrower in STEM fields than in other kinds of fields.
“As occupations have become less segregated, there’s been some improvement in the gender wage gap,” says Ryan Nunn, policy director at the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, which proposes economic policies meant to benefit a wider spectrum of Americans.
Automation has squeezed out many middle-skill jobs, moving more workers either into low- or high-skill occupations. More women are poised to move to the high-skill end of the spectrum, because they are getting more educated and already tend to start out in white-collar jobs, says Erica Groshen, a senior extension faculty member at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations and a research fellow at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
She argues that secretaries, traditionally a female-dominated occupation, may be easier to retrain as a company’s needs change, because they have already “developed a lot of human capital that’s specific to the company they’re in,” whereas with blue-collar workers, it’s easier to think that “this is a shift we don’t need anymore.”
The share of women in several historically female-dominated occupations—such as waitresses and flight attendants—is falling. BLS data shows the percentage of waitstaff jobs held by women fell from 78% to 70%, while the share of flight attendants who are women fell from 84% to 72%.
In addition to weakening stereotypes, the attraction of high pay and benefits are attracting men to jobs as nurses and flight attendants, which tend to be unionized and well-paying.
While progress has been made, there’s still a long way to go to achieving gender parity across all occupations. Employers can play a bigger role in attracting women to male-dominated occupations by providing childcare or elder care benefits. Employers also could put more thought into how to better retain women, who tend to retire earlier than men.
Groshen, for one, is convinced that choices like these can add up to real change. “One really important aspect of this that’s often lost is that the outcomes for workers aren’t really driven by technology—it’s driven by policy choices,” says Groshen. “That’s what’s going to drive the outcomes.”