Conflicting trends in women’s labour market participation rates

According to a recent analysis of Labour Force Survey data, since the beginning of the 1970s, the activity rate of French women has increased by 25 percentage points, from 50% in 1970 to 75% in 2000. Over the same period, however, their unemployment rate has also risen from 3% to 12%, and the proportion of women working part time has increased from 13% to 30%. Regardless of these increases, the gender gap in the activity rate has been diminishing.

Increased rates of activity

In France, the female activity rate has increased from 50% in 1970 to 75% in 2000. The female activity rate is the number of women in the labour force including economically active and unemployed people given as a percentage of the population of working age (15–64 years).

As a result of this increase, the gender gap in the activity rate seems to be closing: it now stands at about 15 percentage points, while it was 45 percentage points in 1970. At this time, the rate of economically active men amounted to 95%. The narrowing of the gap is mostly due to the increase in the activity rate of women.

When considering the development of the overall activity rate, the trend of an increasing female activity rate is becoming less obvious: since 1996, this rate has remained at about 75%. It should be noted that the overall activity rate is an average figure which includes women aged over 55 years and those under the age of 30 years. Moreover, the overall activity rate somewhat masks the fact that the growth in the female activity rate over the past 30 years results, to a certain extent, from a ‘generation effect’. This is due to the fact that, in recent years, the proportion of younger women in the labour force is larger than that of older women, which contributes significantly to the increase in the overall female activity rate. In order to avoid this generation bias, the activity rate of women has been calculated according to their date of birth, revealing important differences. For instance, for women born in 1945, their activity rate at the age of 40 years stood at 65% while that for women born in 1960 amounted to 80% – a difference of 15 percentage points.

Calculating the female activity rate by generation also gives a clearer picture. First, there are indications that the activity rate is increasing from one generation to the next. This finding contrasts sharply with the results displayed when looking at the overall activity rate which shows a slowdown in the female activity rate in recent years. If, however, the trend of an increasing activity rate continues, women born in 1970 should show an average activity rate of 85% between the age of 25 and 59 years, compared with an activity rate of 55% for those born in 1935. Secondly, although activity levels change from one generation to the other, the profile of activity rates over the life course remains similar from one generation to the other: it shows a peak of activity around the age of 45–50 years.

Increased levels of part-time work and unemployment

When considering the female employment rate – that is, the number of women aged 15–64 years in employment as a proportion of the total population of the same age group – the situation has evolved less favourably: the rate of women in employment has stagnated at around 70% for the younger generations, comprising those women born between 1962 and 1972.

There is, however, a major difference between the activity rates of men and women, due to the fact that a significantly greater share of women work part time – about 30% of women work part time compared with 5% of men. It should be noted that one third of the women who work on a part-time basis do so involuntarily. As the rate of female part-time work has considerably increased over the period under examination – it stood at 13% in 1972 – it partially hinders the improvement of the situation of women in the labour market. Therefore, when calculated in terms of full-time equivalent, the female employment rate is lower than 60% and has been at this level for all generations of women born after 1955. The gap between the activity rate and the full-time equivalent employment rate amounts to 20 percentage points for the generations born after 1955. Overall, less qualified women are most affected as their full-time equivalent employment rate has remained at 40% since the beginning of the 1970s, while it is a more recent phenomenon among better qualified women. Nonetheless, nowadays, the gap between women’s activity rate and full-time equivalent employment rate affects all women regardless of their level of education.

Despite any stagnation in both the female activity and employment rates, the gap between men and women is closing. When considering the activity rate, the narrowing of the gender gap is due to the increase in the female activity rate. To date, the gap stands at about five percentage points for the younger generations. However, if the comparison is made on the basis of the full-time equivalent employment rate, such a reduction in the gender gap – which remains at about 15 percentage points for the younger generations – is due to a decline in the male activity rate. This decline is mainly felt among older workers.


Afsa Essafi, C. and Buffeteau, S., ‘L’activité feminine en France: quelles évolutions récentes, quelles tendances pour l’avenir ?’ , Économie et Statistiques, No. 398–399, INSEE, March 2007.

Anne-Marie Nicot, ANACT

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