How the Role of Women in Family Economic Security Has Changed

Growing labor force participation, increased earnings strengthen household finances 

Mother sitting with her child at a computer.Getty

In the early 1970s, 43 percent of all women were wage earners. Today, nearly 6 in 10 women are working for pay.

On April 15, lawmakers from North Dakota and Pennsylvania, along with the National Foundation for Women Legislators, held a conference call about women’s economic mobility. Experts from The Pew Charitable Trusts’ financial security and mobility project presented findings from our 2015 analysis “Women’s Work: The Economic Mobility of Women Across a Generation,” which examined how changes in women’s participation in the workforce have affected families’ financial stability and the economic prospects of future generations.

As more women, and especially mothers, entered the labor force during the past 40 years, upward economic mobility—movement up the economic ladder over time and across generations—increasingly became a family enterprise. The Pew study compared mothers’ earnings with those of their adult daughters and found that, at every rung of the economic ladder across generations, women’s median wages rose by at least 50 percent. 

Today, adult daughters working full time contribute more than half of families’ incomes, with coupled daughters supplying 45 percent and single daughters supplying 81 percent, strengthening financial security. In addition, daughters’ higher hours worked are associated with increased rates of upward family earnings mobility, especially for those at the bottom and middle of the earnings ladder.

However, despite women’s significant generational gains, they continued to earn less than men, and at every rung of the earnings ladder women earned less than men did more than 30 years ago. This dynamic exists in part because women are more likely to take time out of the labor force when they have children, work part time or not at all, and dominate lower-wage sectors of the economy. As a result of these and other factors, men’s labor force participation and wages remain the most important elements for boosting couples’ incomes.

And what do these findings mean for the future of family financial security and mobility? Women are now entering and graduating from college at higher rates than men, and today’s youngest female workers are earning wages more on par with their male peers than ever before. Additionally, during the Great Recession, men experienced significantly more and longer unemployment than women did, making women’s earnings even more critical for buoying their families’ economic well-being.

In light of these findings, the state legislators on the call asked about the future of women’s wages. Pew staff pointed to the study’s conclusion: “By all estimates, women’s wages will continue to grow in importance for their families, and this fact makes greater wage parity all the more critical for financial security and mobility.”

Sarah Sattelmeyer is an officer with the financial security and mobility project at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Father and son sitting on bench
Father and son sitting on bench
Issue Brief

Extended Family Support and Household Balance Sheets

Getting by with a little help from friends and relatives

Quick View
Issue Brief

Over the course of a lifetime, the family provides a foundation for financial security. Children’s economic well-being is closely tied to their immediate families’ financial success, and as kids grow up and begin forming their own households, extended family—parents, grandparents, siblings, and others—and friends continue to play an important role in their financial lives. Family and friends can offer critical support in times of difficulty, provide money to those with the greatest needs,1 and act as investors, improving the next generation’s long-term economic mobility,2 but this element of household balance sheets and of the financial system broadly is largely hidden from public view and poorly understood.

Mother and daughter
Mother and daughter

Women and Economic Mobility

Quick View

This study demonstrates that women's increased labor force participation and earnings have enabled some families to maintain their places on the economic ladder or, particularly among families at the bottom, to move up. But, as was the case for many women in the previous generation, men's earnings continue to matter most for families' income and economic mobility.

Spotlight on Mental Health

Composite image of modern city network communication concept

Learn the Basics of Broadband from Our Limited Series

Sign up for our four-week email course on Broadband Basics

Quick View

How does broadband internet reach our homes, phones, and tablets? What kind of infrastructure connects us all together? What are the major barriers to broadband access for American communities?

Pills illustration
Pills illustration

What Is Antibiotic Resistance—and How Can We Fight It?

Sign up for our four-week email series The Race Against Resistance.

Quick View

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs,” are a major threat to modern medicine. But how does resistance work, and what can we do to slow the spread? Read personal stories, expert accounts, and more for the answers to those questions in our four-week email series: Slowing Superbugs.

Explore Pew’s new and improved
Fiscal 50 interactive

Your state's stats are more accessible than ever with our new and improved Fiscal 50 interactive:

  • Maps, trends, and customizable charts
  • 50-state rankings
  • Analysis of what it all means
  • Shareable graphics and downloadable data
  • Proven fiscal policy strategies


Welcome to the new Fiscal 50

Key changes include:

  • State pages that help you keep track of trends in your home state and provide national and regional context.
  • Interactive indicator pages with highly customizable and shareable data visualizations.
  • A Budget Threads feature that offers Pew’s read on the latest state fiscal news.

Learn more about the new and improved Fiscal 50.