There can be little doubt that the movement of women into the labor force has been the single greatest contributor to economic growth over the working lifetimes of members of the baby boom generation. In 1977, 47 percent of Maine women age 16 or older were in the labor force; by 2000, that had jumped to 64 percent. These tens of thousands of women added enormously to the state’s economy and changed the character of our families.

Since 2000, this vast movement into the workplace has slowed. The female participation rate stabilized around 62 percent before falling to 60 percent in 2014 and to 58 percent in 2015, as the first members of this new cohort of workers moved into retirement.

The relative stability of women’s workforce participation throughout the first decade and a half of the 21st century contrasts sharply with the pattern for men. In Maine, the workforce participation rate of men has fallen steadily from 74 percent in 2000 to 67 percent in 2015. This leads naturally to these questions: “Who’s getting the jobs in Maine, and what does this say about our economy?”

One way to think about these questions is to look at new hires: the people who filled a position within a given quarter and held it at the end of that quarter. (This number does not include people recalled to fill a position from which they had been previously released.)

During the most recent six years – the 24 quarters from the fourth quarter of 2009 through the third quarter of 2015 – the number of female new hires exceeded male new hires in 21 of those quarters. Over the entire period, the number of female new hires totaled just over 426,000, which exceeded the number of male new hires by nearly 46,000.

It is important to remember in this regard that being a new hire is not the same thing as taking and holding the same job. Undoubtedly, many women were counted several times in that 426,000 number as they advanced to new positions in later quarters after their initial hiring quarter. It is equally possible, of course, that the higher number of female new hires simply reflects women who entered, left and then returned to the labor force, compared to men who accepted and held their new positions. It is simply impossible to make that distinction with these data.

It is interesting, however, to note that the average monthly pay for female new hires increased 20 percent over the period, far exceeding the 8 percent increase for males. While the pay for newly hired women was still 25 percent below the pay for newly hired men, this nevertheless did mark a clear advance. This seems to belie the stereotype of women entering and leaving the labor market rather than pursuing an ongoing career.

Further evidence of the changing nature of Maine’s labor force with respect to gender is evident in a comparison of new hires by level of education during the same 24-quarter period noted above.

Throughout the entire period, there were about 9,600 more male new hires with less than a high school education than there were female new hires with the same level of education. Among new hires with just a high school education, men outnumbered women by only 3,600, and this numerical advantage occurred in 12 of the 24 quarters.

Looking at new hires with some college or an associate degree, the pattern shifts entirely. There were 22,400 more female new hires than there were male new hires, and women outnumbered men in all 24 quarters. This same pattern holds true for new hires who have bachelor’s or advanced degrees. In this category, female new hires outnumbered their male counterparts by nearly 16,000; again, this numerical superiority held true in all 24 quarters.

While average pay for these female new hires remained less at every educational level than their male counterparts, women saw a far higher increase in average pay over the 24-quarter period than men did, thus reducing the pay gap substantially, particularly at the lower educational levels.

But even among new hires with bachelor’s and advanced degrees, where the initial gender pay gap was greatest, the 13 percent gain for women far outpaced the 2 percent gain for men, thus ensuring that gender parity will eventually work its way up that career ladder as well.

In other words, new female entrants into Maine’s labor force are exerting as significant a change in our economy today by virtue of their educational qualifications as their predecessors did a generation ago by their mere presence in the workforce.

Ironically, this success may well point the way for our state’s most wasted resource: men who have dropped out of the labor force. We must find ways to re-engage them in the learning and work process – and the success of women over the first 15 years of this new century may offer some examples.

Consulting economist Charles Lawton, Ph.D., can be contacted at:

[email protected]