Women in the Professional Workforce

Updated August 2013

Women make up more than half of the professional and technical workforce in the United States. While the situation for women in the workforce has improved over the last several decades, many women still struggle for equity and equality in many occupations. Women are earning post-secondary degrees at a faster rate than men are, yet a wage gap persists. It is possible that some portion of the wage gap results from decisions women make, personal job preference, or socio-economic circumstances; however, many still face overt or subtle employment discrimination, contributing to continued inequality.


Employment Trends

In 2012, there were almost 67 million working women in the U.S. While women were just under half of the general workforce (47 percent), they represented a majority of those in professional and technical occupations (57 percent).[1] The proportion of women to men in the workforce changed dramatically from only a generation ago. In 1972, women represented just 38 percent of the workforce. After years of steady growth, the number leveled off in the mid-1990s and has remained close to the current percentage for the last two decades.[2]

While a larger proportion of women are entering the workforce, uneven representation across occupations and industries persists. In 2012, women were less than 40 percent of those in management occupations. Within the numerous professional and technical occupations, women are disproportionately represented, with high concentrations in some occupations and far below average in others. While less than 10 percent of aerospace engineers and computer network architects were women in 2012, more than 95 percent of speech and language pathologists and kindergarten teachers were women. In other occupations, such as biological scientists and artists, representation of men and women was nearly equal.[3]Percent of women workers in prof and tech occupations

Representation of women varies by industry as well. In 2012, nearly three-quarters of all those employed in the education and health services industry were women. While this is in part because women are over represented in occupations typically associated with this industry, such as teaching or nursing, women in other occupational groups are also clustered in this industry. For example, nearly 20 percent of women in management, business, and financial occupations worked in the education and health services industry. In industries with low representation of women, female employees are often clustered in specific occupations. For example, women were less than 10 percent of those employed in the construction industry in 2012, and of those, almost half were in office or administrative support occupations.[4]percent of women and men employed by industry

workforce participation rate by gender and education attainmentWomen have a lower workforce participation rate than men at every level of education; however, the gap shrinks at higher levels of educational attainment. Approximately 33 percent of women over the age of 25 with less than a high school diploma were in the workforce in 2012, compared to close to 60 percent of men with less than a high school diploma. Those not in the workforce either chose not to work or were no longer seeking work due to labor market conditions. Among those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, 72 percent of women and 80 percent of men were in the workforce in 2012.[5]

The unemployment rate, those without a job but looking for work, was higher for women in 2012 at most levels of educational attainment; however, the differences were smaller for women with higher levels of education. Amongst those without a high school diploma, the unemployment rate for women was more than two points higher than that for men, compared to a difference of only .5 points for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.[6]

Median duration of unemployment in weeks

Among those who were unemployed in 2012, the median duration of unemployment was, in general, shorter for women. However, the median duration for Hispanic or Latina women was slightly longer than for men of the same ethnicity. For both African American and Asian women as well as men, the median duration of unemployment was longer than that for white workers of the same gender.[7]

Women were also less likely than men to work part-time for economic reasons (for example, unable to find full-time work). In 2012, 30 percent of men working part-time were doing so for economic reasons, compared to 20 percent of women working part-time.[8]

In professional and technical occupations, the unemployment rates for women in July 2013 were often higher than those for men. However, in a number of occupations, the differences were relatively small.[9] Women in education, training, and library, and arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations had unemployment rates close to those for the entire workforce in July 2013 (7.4 percent), but rates were generally lower for other professional occupations.[10]Unemployment rates for professional and tech workers

Among those who served in the armed forces, the unemployment rate has historically been higher for women than men. In 2012, the annual unemployment rate for women who were veterans was 8.3 percent compared to 6.9 percent for men.[11] While small numbers of observation may result in some sampling bias, the unemployment rate for women who served in the Gulf War II- era (since September 11, 2001) has often outpaced that for male veterans serving in the same era. While the unemployment rate for all veterans is higher than that for the general workforce, some reports suggest that, for a number of reasons, including prejudicial assumptions about female veterans, women returning from service often face a more difficult labor market than men.[12]

monthly unemployment rates for gulf war II-era veterans
In the 2010-2011 school year, the majority of post-secondary degreespost-secondary degrees conferred
conferred went to women. Women far outnumbered men at all levels of degree, except doctoral, where men represented slightly more than half of recipients that year.[13] The U.S. Department of Education predicts this trend to continue, with women representing a growing proportion of annual post-secondary degree recipients.[14]


Issues and Concerns

Despite high levels of education, and strong representation in professional and technical occupations, women still face a persistent wage and earnings gap. While there are a number of factors that may influence the differences in earnings between men and women in the aggregate, (such as higher proportions of women in lower paying occupations) the wage gap continuespercent of hourly workers paid at or below the federal minimum wage even within individual occupations. While women are more likely than men to leave and then re-enter the workforce if they have children, which may affect accrued seniority or promotions,[15] even this is insufficient to explain the entire persistent gap. A study by the American Association of University Women found that even when controlling for factors, including years of experience, marital, status, and even GPA, there was still an observable difference in earnings for men and women in the same job.[16]

In 2012, women who were employed as hourly workers were more likely than men be paid at or even below the federal minimum wage. While still a relatively small proportion of the part-time workforce, nearly twice as many women than man were earning these low hourly rates.[17]

Amongst professional and technical workers, the wage gap persists in almost all occupational groups. In 2012, the difference was smallest in community and social service occupations, where median weekly earnings for women were about 96 percent of those for men. The difference was most pronounced in the legal occupations where women’s median weekly earnings were only 54 percent of those for men in the same occupational group.[18] Data are not available on all individual occupations; however, there is evidence that this gap persists both because of a gap within occupations and because women are disproportionately clustered into lower paying occupations in each group.[19]median weekly earnings by occupation

This inequity in pay translates to large lifetime earning differences. Estimates indicate that a women could earn as much as a half million dollars less over her working life because she is paid less than a man for the same job. Further, women have the same debt burden as men upon completing their education. Early differences in pay, even modest ones, may lengthen the time required to pay off her loans. As interest compounds women risk paying more in total. Further, this disparity translates to lower returns on social security and other retirement investments, possibly requiring women to stay in the workforce longer to make up the differences in earnings.

There is evidence to suggest this pay gap has an impact on children and families as well. A recent study found that in 40 percent of American households with children the primary or sole earners was a woman.[20] Further, both men and women have to contend with difficult economic and personal choices when having children, given that few employers offer paid parental leave.[21]


The Union Difference

Union membership is one way women in the workforce are achieving wage median weekly earnings by union membershipparity with men. On average, median weekly earnings for both men and women were higher for those who are union members compared to non-union employees in 2012.[22] This premium was particularly pronounced for women. Women who were union members earned between 26 and 52 percent more than their non-union counterparts in 2012.[23]

In 2012, approximately 10.5 percent of women and 12 percent of men in the workforce were union members.[24]


For more information about professional women, click here.

For more information about professional and technical workers, click here.


[1] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 11, “Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity,” 2012

[2] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 2, “Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population 16 years and over by sex, 1972 to date,” 2012

[3] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 11, “Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity,” 2012

[4] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 17, “Employed persons by industry, sex, race, and occupation,” 2012.

[5] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 7, “Employment status of the civilian non-institutional population 25 years and over by educational attainment, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity,”, 2012

[6] Ibid.

[7] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 29, “Unemployed persons by reason for unemployment, sex, age, and duration of unemployment,” 2012

[8] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 23, “Persons at work by occupation, sex, and usual full- or part-time status,” 2012

[9] U.S. Census Bureau, DataFerrett, Current Population Survey, July 2013.

[10] Ibid.

[11] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey Table , A-5, “Employment status of the civilian population 18 years and over by veteran status, period of service, and sex, not seasonally adjusted,” 2012

[12]Bill Briggs, “Veteran unemployment rate dips, but crisis deepens for ex-military women,” NBC News, October 5, 2012. Available at: http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/10/05/14244058-veteran-unemployment-rate-dips-but-crisis-deepens-for-ex-military-women?lite

[13] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), “Completions Survey” (IPEDS-C:87-99); and IPEDS Fall 2000 through Fall 2011, Completions component. Table 310.

[14] Ibid.

[15] NPR, “Want More Gender Equality At Work? Go To An Emerging Market,” April 22, 2013. Available at: http://www.npr.org/2013/04/22/177511506/want-more-gender-equality-at-work-go-to-an-emerging-market

[16] American Association of University Women. “The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap, 2013 edition.” AAUW, Washington, DC. Available at: http://www.aauw.org/files/2013/02/The-Simple-Truth-2013.pdf

[17] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 44, “Wage and salary workers paid hourly rates with earnings at or below the prevailing Federal minimum wage by selected characteristics,” 2012

[18] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 39, ” Median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers by detailed occupation and sex,” 2012.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Wendy Wang, Kim Parker, and Paul Taylor. “Breadwinner moms: Mothers are the sole or primary provider in Four-in-Ten Households with Children; Public Conflicted about the Growing Trend.” Pew Research, Social and Demographic. Washington, D.C. May 29, 2013. Available at: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/05/29/breadwinner-moms

[21] Annie Finnegan, “Everyone but U.S.: The State of Maternity Leave,” Working Mother, Available at: http://www.workingmother.com/best-companies/everyone-us-state-maternity-leave

[22] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 41, “Median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers by union affiliation and selected characteristics,” 2012

[23] Ibid.

[24] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 40, “Union affiliation of employed wage and salary workers by selected characteristics,” 2012