In what was perhaps the most thoroughly celebrated section of Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Trump announced that, economically, women are winning.
“No one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women, who have filled 58 percent of the new jobs created in the last year,” Trump said. He was met with raucous cheers from the block of Democratic congresswomen in white. “All Americans can be proud that we have more women in the workforce than ever before.”
The passage echoed messages that have been coming out of the administration for weeks. At a White House panel in mid-January, Trump repeated the same statistics, adding that he is “very proud” that women have made these economic gains “under [his] watch.” A few days later, in an interview with CNN, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway said, "Over a half a million new women entered the workforce” during Trump’s presidency.
These statements are correct: Approximately 1.7 million additional women joined the labor force during the first two years of Trump’s term, and because employment for women has been on an upward swing for almost 10 years, that means there are more women working in the United States now than ever before.
But it’s not clear how significant those numbers are — or whether the Trump administration can reasonably take credit for them. First, the overall employment rate for women is a more pertinent figure than the raw number of women joining the workforce, which does not account for population growth. Today’s employment rate for women is 57.5 percent, lower than the record high of 60.3, reached in 2000.
The increasing number of women in the workplace stems from long-term economic trends, “which likely have very little to do with Trump’s policies,” said Heidi Hartmann, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. For most of the last 50 years, she said, men have been decreasing their workforce participation, while women have been increasing theirs. “Men were maxed out for their labor participation,” she said. “They have been using economic growth as a way to work less.” Women, on the other hand, have been pursuing higher education in larger numbers, “trying to catch up with men.” (Women now account for 57 percent of enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities.) While employment rates for both genders stagnated in the early 2000s and through the recession, Hartmann said, women have since rebounded, continuing to join the workforce at a faster rate than men.
More women are also likely joining the workforce because the service economy is growing, Hartmann said. The education, health care and professional services industries — which traditionally employ a lot of women — have all expanded significantly over the past decade, while the manufacturing, transportation and construction industries — which employ mostly men — have shrunk.
Some conservative analysts draw a clear connection between high employment numbers for women and the Republican-led Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. By raising the child tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000, the tax reform bill has helped low-income mothers to pay for child care, said Elaine Parker, president of the Job Creators Network Foundation, a small business advocacy organization. For new mothers weighing the cost of child care against their salaries, she said, tax reform has helped tip the scales, spurring them to return to work.
“You ask yourself, is it worth going back to work to pay for child care if all I’m going to get is a paycheck to pay for child care?” Parker said. “Elements [like the tax reform bill] directly help young families, and especially single moms.”
Trump likely chose to highlight the economic gains that women, in particular, have made during his presidency because he is having trouble with female voters. A new poll, published last month from The Washington Post and ABC News, showed a massive gender gap in approval for Trump’s presidency: Forty-seven percent of men said they approved of Trump’s job performance, compared with just 27 percent of women. This gender gap has existed throughout Trump’s presidency, but seems to be widening. Forty-six percent of men approved of Trump’s job performance as of September, according to a Pew study, versus 30 percent of women.
Trump also knew he’d be speaking to a swath of massively popular newly-elected Democratic congresswomen, all making a statement by coordinating their outfits in suffragist white. Many of them spent almost the entire night in their seats, making a point not to clap, even when applause erupted from the rest of the Democratic Party. Trump’s statements on the increasing number of women in the workplace elicited by far the loudest cheers of the night.
What was missing from Trump’s discussion of female employment, Hartmann noted, were any specifics. While he made sweeping statements about the growing economy, he did not point to any particular initiatives that had helped women economically, or that could help them in the future. “There was nothing about subsidized child care or student loan reduction,” Hartmann said. And while he did voice his support for paid family leave, as he has done in the past, Trump did not detail how he planned to make it happen.
While the president was clearly eager to appeal to women, Hartmann said, he delivered a speech that was, on the whole, “very short on policies of particular interest to them.”