Tracking the long, hard path that's led women to outpace men in the US workforce — and the challenges they'll still face in the 2020s


More than half of US employees are now women, but just 40% of businesses are women-owned.

Female workers now make up over half of the non-farm payroll labor force, according to the latest employment numbers that show women just edging out men, 76.2 million to 76.1 million.

Within the education and health sectors, women hold over 77% of jobs, economist Betsey Stevenson noted in a post on Twitter, adding "perhaps the most important issue is that women are working where jobs are growing."

"Health care added more jobs in 2019 than 2018, while jobs grow[th] slowed substantially in mining, construction, transportation & warehousing, and construction," she wrote.

But these gains in workforce representation aren't exactly translating into roles at the top of the nation's businesses, according to the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC).

In a blog post, the largest certifier of women-owned businesses put the numbers into a larger context: "Despite the incredible growth, we are still far from reaching gender parity."

"Women-owned businesses account for just 8% of the total private sector workforce and 4.3% of total revenues, those numbers are not increasing as quickly as the number of new firms," the post continued.

New laws and new opportunities 

Part of the discrepancy is due to the fact that business ownership is a relatively new right for women. As recently as 1988, women in some states were legally prohibited from obtaining business loans without the co-signature of a male relative. 

That year, Congress passed the Women's Business Ownership Act, which banned that form of state-sanctioned sex discrimination and authorized a new set of programs to foster the development of women entrepreneurs.

Today, there are more than 12.3 million women-owned businesses, and women have grown to represent roughly 40% of all business owners. 

Their cumulative economic impact of these entrepreneurs is significant.

An American Express analysis of the US Census Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs found that women-owned firms with annual revenues of more than $1 million, employed more than 6.2 million workers, and generated $1.2 trillion in revenues. 

But those top-performers represented less than 2% of all women-owned businesses, as 9 in 10 of women's businesses earn less than $100,000 per year. 

In addition, the study found that most women are working solo, and said that most businesses wait to hire their first employee until after they cross the $100,000 revenue threshold.

Entrepreneurs of necessity

The study describes many of these self-employed women as "necessity entrepreneurs," or individuals who cannot find full-time employment elsewhere. 

Necessity entrepreneurs do not tend to hire additional employees, and typically return to wage-based employment when economic conditions improve, the report explains.

According to another organization, the National Women's Business Council, there are more than a million millennial women entrepreneurs, but millennials are starting businesses at lower rates than their parents did.

One reason the Council survey found is that millennials are more educated, diverse and indebted than prior generations. 

Survey respondents said factors like the Great Recession, student debt, and "side hustles" significantly shaped their attitudes about entrepreneurship.

Lastly, the American Express analysis credits women of color with being the "driving force behind the growth of women-owned businesses" in the last 11 years. 

The American Express report called the past half century "uneven" and called for greater investment in and support of minority women business owners as a way to maximize broad economic gains and local community improvements.

As a new decade begins, there's no question that there's still a long way to go.