Women in the U.S. have made great strides in economic independence in the past 50 years, but the most recent progress may have more to do with the lower quality of available jobs than gender empowerment.

A new report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics takes a look at the history of women’s participation in the workforce and concludes the long-term shift in the nature of the American workforce has benefited women in terms of participation, but at a price.

BLS on US manufacturing Jobs compared to services Employment in manufacturing has been a roller coaster ride since the early 1970s, particularly prone to heavy drops during recessionary periods. Starting in the early 2000s, service-sector jobs have risen while manufacturing jobs have plummeted to lows unseen since Baby Boomers began entering the work force as adults, when wages and benefits were better. Photo: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Men have traditionally held the better-paying manufacturing jobs, but globalization and free trade have sent many goods-producing jobs overseas. The products are then shipped back to the U.S. consumer who gravitates toward lower-cost goods made by emerging market workforces. This fuels a trade deficit and has made many U.S. manufacturing segments far more vulnerable to economic downturns.

“By contrast, the service-providing industries, which represent the majority of payroll employment and whose share of total nonfarm employment has risen from 68 percent in 1969 to 86 percent in 2013, have historically accounted for a much smaller percentage of recessionary job losses and, in some cases, contributed to net job gains during recessions,” Catherine Wood, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics economist, wrote.

And guess who's more likely to hold a job as a Wal-Mart cashier, a nursing home attendant or a restaurant server? A woman.

Women's share of U.S. employment The number of women participating in the U.S. work force has increased from just over 18 million in 1964 (well less than half the number compared to men) to almost 68 million at the end of last year (almost as many as there are men). During the last U.S. recession, the longest since the Great Depression, women’s participation in the work force increased. Between June 2009 and April 2010, women’s share of U.S. employment touched or slightly topped 50 percent for the first time in U.S. history. Photo: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics  

In 2013, 78 percent of all jobs in the goods-producing industries were held by men, whereas 54 percent of all jobs in the service-providing industries were held by women. The chart below shows why women have seen their share of U.S. jobs grow: because the U.S. economy wants more Americans providing services rather than making things. 

US women and men in services and manufacturing As the U.S. economy shifts to greater dependence on lower-paid service-sector jobs, women have seen their share of employment grow. This is because they've always been underrepresented in the production of goods, and they have led men in service jobs since the early 1980s. Photo: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics