Laws outlawing discrimination against pregnant workers and greater access to birth control helped pave the way for millions of women to join the workforce in the 1960s and 1970s. By 1980, the share of American "prime-age" women—those aged between 25 and 54–who were either working or looking for work topped the equivalent figure in Canada, Australia, France, Germany and Japan.
Indeed, America has the dubious distinction of being the only G7 country that has gone backwards on this measure over the past two decades. In 1999 77% of prime-age American women were part of the labour force, according to the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries—on a par with Germany and Britain. In 2018, this figure had slipped by two percentage points, to 75%. In the same period, Australia saw an increase of more than nine percentage points; Germany a rise of six. Britain, Canada and France all climbed by two percentage points.
Bringing more women into America’s workforce would yield economic benefits. A study published in 2012 by Booz Allen Hamilton, a consultancy, estimated that increasing the labour-force participation of American women to that of men would boost output by 5%. It would alleviate the problem of an ageing population, too. A decade ago, there were roughly five working-age Americans for every one of retirement age; by 2020, the Census Bureau reckons, there will be just three and a half.
This article is from our Graphic detail section.