Tri-City area women not (yet) holding up half of the business sky

By D. Patrick Jones

“Women hold up half the sky,” Chairman Mao Zedong famously uttered, when discussing the role of women in the Chinese revolution. Since then, the phrase has become a rallying point for many women. Do they hold up half of the economic sky in the greater Tri-Cities? Some data are available to answer that question. But let’s start with some national trends.

Over the past four decades, it is undeniable that women have made economic progress. Yet, one important measure has plateaued over the past two decades. After climbing from 38 percent in 1970 to 46 percent in 1995, the participation rate of women in the work force has stayed the same since then, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS. The rate is the share of women employed or looking for employment out of all adult women.

On the other hand, the wage differential between women and men has continued to narrow, according to the BLS. In 1980, median earnings for women amounted to 60 percent to that of men; in 2017, it had climbed to 80 percent and has continued to move up over the past few years. The gap, even if it is closing, is the subject of much research into causes, such as the choice of occupations.

Consider high-paying occupations: 60 percent of all working pharmacists in the U.S. are women; yet only 11 percent of all civil engineers are female. Now consider less well-compensated jobs:  women make up 82 percent of all social workers and 71 percent of social service agency managers. Even within higher paying occupations, women often earn less than men. Take the latest nationwide figures for accountants from the BLS: Female accountants and auditors earn 75 percent of the salaries claimed by their male counterparts. Leadership and senior roles undoubtedly play a role here. This raises the question of the status of women within firms.

BLS data don’t cover this question. However, Catalyst, a nonprofit that has worked decades to promote the role of women in the workplace, recently tabulated some information from the S&P 500 companies. Currently, 21 percent of executive level positions in these companies are filled by women, while slightly less than 5 percent of the CEO suites have a female in them.

What about the Tri-Cities? Let’s start with the labor force. The state Employment Security Department, or ESD, tracks overall participation rate by gender.  In 2017, more than 61 percent of Franklin County women were in the labor force versus 56 percent in Benton County. Female participation in Benton County has actually dropped by 4 percentage points since 2001, while Franklin County’s has increased by 5 percentage points. The statewide average was 59 percent, hardly different from U.S. averages.

For both counties, the female rates are a good dozen percentage points lower than those of men.

Where in the local work force are women predominant?  ESD doesn’t track participation rates by industry. But it does calculate shares of those employed by gender. The four sectors with a majority female work force are: finance, education, health care and social assistance and the hospitality industries Their ratios are in line with Washington averages, with the exception of finance, where the Tri-Cities shows a higher penetration of women. Local sectors with the lowest representation of women are construction, manufacturing, utilities and wholesale. These employment ratios here largely match those statewide.

Unfortunately, not much can be reported on earnings by gender in the two counties. We do know from Benton Franklin Trends data that in 2017, average annual earnings were nearly $50,000. If local wage patterns mirror national ones, then Tri-City females earned about $40,000 that year.

Similarly, we can’t report any data-based conclusions about women in business leadership roles in the Tri-Cities. If local trends don’t deviate much from national ones, it would be surprising if any of the largest private sector firms here have a female in the corner office. Small firms, however, are likely a different matter.

These firms are nearly all owner-operated. The U.S. Census publishes a survey every five years on firm ownership by gender (and race/ethnicity). The most recent survey, in 2012, provides a detailed snapshot of gender roles in owner-operated companies in the Tri-Cities.  About 37 percent of all registered businesses were female-owned in that year. However, many of these businesses had no employees. Of those that did employ someone other than the owner, about 16 percent were female-owned.

The same survey tracks businesses jointly owned by a man and a woman, without and with employees. For 2012, those shares were 18 percent and 25 percent, respectively. This implies that of all the owner-operated firms in the Tri-Cities, about one half had a woman in an executive role. For firms with employees, the share was more than 40 percent.

Overall, however, it’s hard to conclude that women are holding up half of the business sky in the Tri-Cities. But their influence will continue to grow, if nothing else, because of their outperformance in education.

D. Patrick Jones is executive director for Eastern Washington University’s Institute for Public Policy & Economic Analysis.

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