Labor Force Participation Rate in the U.S. by Gender

Natalia V. Smirnova, Univeristy of Connecticut,
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Discover and observe the trends of LFPR by gender in the U.S. from 1948 until the present. Discuss and defend the ranking of proposed reasons for these trends.

Context for Use

● This activity is appropriate for Principles, Intro Macro, and for elective courses such as Labor Economics, Women in Labor Force, "Women, Men, and Work", etc.
● Students must be able to operate within FRED site: search for appropriate series, edit a graph by adding lines, change the time frame of a graph, save a graph.
● No class size limitations.
● Time needed for the activity: 1 hour.
● Should not need more one class period.
● Self-standing activity.


The learning goals of this activity are: (1) to observe the differences in labor force participation rates (LFPR) by gender in the U.S. from 1948 until the present; (2) hypothesize the reasons for those differences.

To achieve these learning goals, students will (1) discover the trends of LFPR for males and females in the U.S. by creating the graph in FRED from 1948 until the present; (2) discuss, persuasively argue, and defend the ranking of suggested reasons for these trends.

The intended outcome of the activity is the understanding of differences in LFPR trends in the U.S. by gender and of existing explanations of the reasons for these trends.

Expected Student Learning Outcomes

In this exercise students will be able to:
1. Discover the differences in LFPR trends by gender in the U.S.;
2. Evaluate the existing reasons for LFPR trends by gender in the U.S.

Information Given to Students

On the FRED website, create a graph with the following three series in the same graph:
1. Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) for the U.S. from 1948 until the present;
2. Civilian LFPR: women for the U.S. from 1948 until the present;
3. Civilian LFPR: men for the U.S. from 1948 until the present.
Examine your graph and hypothesize the reasons for the dynamics of women's and men's labor force participation in the U.S. from 1948 until the present.

Rank the following factors in order from the most likely to influence observed trends in the U.S. LFP by gender to the factors least likely to influence the observed trends. Consider the questions separately for men and women.

A. Overall increase in wages;
B. Increase of labor opportunities for women;
C. Structural changes in the economy;
D. Women traditionally have jobs that are less sensitive to cyclical shifts.

Teaching Notes and Tips

● What prefatory remarks should set up the application exercise?

Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) by gender has a very interesting trend in the United States. As students create the graph on FRED, they will observe the decline in the LFPR of men and the increase of the LFPR of women through the years. The goal of this exercise is to encourage students to think about the reasons for such trends.

● Does facilitating the team work require any special action?

● What kinds of follow-up questions are recommended for facilitating the debriefing conversation among team reporters? In particular, how might the instructor get teams to evaluate which answer is the best, provide the analytical support for the team answers, identify what information would enable an economist to decide between alternative answers?

There is no clear ranking among the reasons for the trend. The logic of every team's argument for the ranking should be evaluated by the instructor.

● What points should be emphasized in the instructor's summary remarks to conclude the exercise?
A. During 1979-2000, women's earnings increased by 30%;
B. Change in attitudes from society about the role of women;
C. Structural change in the economy from manufacturing to services and the technological shift allowed women to participate in the labor force in high-technology and service-oriented fields;
D. Women traditionally held service jobs which are less sensitive to cyclical shifts.


Since there is no consensus in the literature about the ranking order of the factors influencing LFPR in the U.S., the instructor would judge team answers based on the convincing arguments.
The main outcomes that must be present in the answers:
1) Differences in LFPR trends by gender are observed;
2) Compelling arguments are presented in the ranking of reasons for the observed trends.

The following essay question could be asked as a follow-up for the exercise:

The labor force participation rate of women in the United States more than doubled in the second half of the 20th century but has fallen during the first two decades of the 21st century. What economic forces can explain these changes? Explain each influence carefully.

References and Resources

Blau, Francine D., Anne E. Winkler. 2017. The Economics of Women, Men, and Work. 8th Edition. Oxford University Press.
This textbook discusses various reasons for LFPR in the U.S.

FRED: – LFPR women -- LFPR men