Women at Work

Beginning with World War II and the heyday of "Rosie the Riveter," the United States was among the first countries in the world where women played a prominent role in the workforce. Over the past several decades, other countries have sought to follow the U.S. example. We wonder: When it comes to the share of women in the workforce, where does the United States rank today among rich countries?

A. First place
B. 12th place
C. 17th place
D. 28th place

A. First place is not correct.

Among the world's developed countries, Iceland is the world's leader when it comes to the share of women in the labor force. There, 81.7% of all women between the ages of 15 and 64 years work, followed by Norway at 74.6%, according to the OECD.

While often considered a world leader when it comes to women in the workforce, the United States has long ranked behind the countries of Northern Europe in this regard. In fact, in recent years, the United States' female employment rate has actually fallen. After reaching a high of 67.8% in 2000, it has since declined to 65.9% (as of 2007, the latest year for which data are available).

B. 12th place is correct.

The United States currently ranks in 12th place among industrialized countries, behind Australia and ahead of Austria. The U.S. share of women in the workforce is also close to the rates in the United Kingdom (66.3%) and Germany (63.2%). While the UK's female employment rate has increased by only a couple percentage points since the late 1990s, it has risen by about eight percentage points in Germany.

A key reason for the uptrend in much of Europe is a choice to provide considerably higher levels of public spending on family benefits than the United States. These policies include funds for generous maternity leave and child care, which enable women to balance career and family interests by having more flexible working hours.

C. 17th place is not correct.

Japan (59.5%) and France (59.4%) rank side-by-side at 17th and 18th place, respectively. Their performance is about on par with the OECD average of 57.5% and the EU-27 average of 58.3%.

D. 28th place is not correct.

Italy still ranks near the bottom of the scale among the 30 OECD countries, with only 46.6% of all women working. It thus places above only Mexico (43.6%) and Turkey (23.8%). Italy's percentage is roughly in line with those of Poland and Spain, two other predominantly Catholic countries.

However, that current underperformance could well have an upside in the future. According to Goldman Sachs, if women in Italy and Spain were to reach the same employment rate as men, their countries' GDPs could grow by around 20% — well over double what the United States, Germany or Britain could expect.

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