Does Sheryl Sandberg speak to American women?
Judging by the popularity of her best-selling book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” the answer would seem to be yes. But Ms. Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and one of the richest women in America, ran into a wall of criticism for playing down the institutional constraints that make it so difficult for most women to advance their careers while having a rich family life, from impossible school schedules to inflexible business hours.
Even though Ms. Sandberg’s prescriptions may appear irrelevant to middle-class mothers who cannot afford an army of nannies, her call to action drew attention to a puzzle that affects women outside the set of potential candidates to lead a Fortune 500 company: how did women get stuck?
Interestingly, the policies that will most help improve the lot of women in the workplace may be focused not on women but on families and, specifically, on men.
In 2006 I wrote that the surge of women into the work force that transformed the American economy in the 20th century seemed to be petering out in the 21st, peaking well below the level for men.
Seven years later, women’s participation in the job market has continued to drift. Men’s employment has been declining for decades and took another severe hit in the recession. Still, 82.5 percent of men in the prime working ages of 25 to 54 have a job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only 69.5 percent of women do.
This stagnation is puzzling. In her Ely Lecture, delivered at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association seven years ago, Claudia Goldin of Harvard, one of the nation’s pre-eminent experts on the history of women in the workplace, rejected the theory that women’s labor supply had hit a ceiling, a “natural rate.”
The flattening of women’s labor participation, she suggested then, might simply reflect a shift in women’s typical childbearing age from their 20s to their 30s. As they aged further, women’s labor force participation would tick back up.
Today, Professor Goldin is not so sure. “I am reconsidering it now,” she told me.
Women’s labor supply is not the only thing to have plateaued. The narrowing of the gender wage gap slowed sharply in the mid-1990s. Over the last decade or so the typical wage of a woman in her prime has hovered around 80 percent of the typical wage for a man.
The wages of younger women have come closer to those of younger m