Home / Population and society / Articles / How has the role of women changed over the last 50 years?

Societal structures change from generation to generation, leading to changes in the roles women play in politics and the workforce, and childrearing. But how has women's participation in different sectors of American society changed over the last 50 years?

Are more women serving in Congress?

In the past four decades, women’s representation in Congress has increased substantially. Women now make up a quarter of members of Congress, which is more than double the number who served in the 106th Congress of 1999 to 2001.

Women held 150 seats in the 117th Congress, which spanned January 3, 2021, to January 3, 2023, making up about 25% of Congress. Even though women’s participation in Congress is up 56% from a decade prior, to reach representation proportional with the population, that number would need to double.

Read more about women’s participation in Congress.

Has women’s participation in the workforce increased?

Women’s labor force participation rate grew from 34% in 1950 to 60% in 2000, and is expected to 0.7% per year through 2050. This figure, however, varies among different demographic groups.

Despite Congress passing the Equal Pay Act in 1963, a wage gap remains. In 2020, women earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even with educational advancements and entry into higher-paying fields, women tend to be more represented in lower-paying sectors.

For instance, 77% of public elementary and secondary school teachers were women in the 2020–2021 school year.

Even though 95% of elementary, middle and high school teachers have a bachelor’s degree or higher, their pay was lower than that of their similarly educated peers. Average earnings were $53,800 for elementary and middle school teachers, and $57,840 for high school teachers. To compare, biological scientists earn $69,880, urban and regional planners earn $79,790, and statisticians earn $96,320.

Read about women’s income and teacher salary.

How do women balance work and childcare?

Data indicates that mothers are four times more likely than fathers to miss work due to childcare, a trend that has continued even as women’s increasing participation in the workforce. Issues such as paid parental leave complicate this picture. Although the Family and Medical Leave Act mandates a 12-week parental leave for many employees, it does not require that this leave be paid. Recent data shows that 89% of workers had access only to unpaid family and medical leave.

Read more about how men and women use time differently.

Women’s roles in the United States— in political arenas, the workforce, and at home—have experienced significant shifts over the decades. As women’s representation in Congress has grown, so has their participation in the labor force. But, while some disparities shrink, others persist. Understanding the data behind these trends can add context to gender roles and inform debate and policy on future equity initiatives.

There’s a lot more where this came from: learn more in this interview between USAFacts’ Sasha Anderson and News Not Noise’s Jessica Yellin. Then see the differences in how men and women spend their time differently, and get the latest data by signing up for our newsletter.