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Best Cities for Women in the Workforce

March 16, 2015
Best Cities for Women in the Workforce
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When it comes to pay, women still make only about 78% of what men bring home. This is a tough truth about the lack of equal pay for equal work, but it isn’t necessarily the full picture.

New research by the American Association of University Women shows the pay gap can be smaller or bigger depending on where you live, with figures varying by as much as 25%.

That made us wonder: Which U.S. cities offer the best economic opportunities for women? Could moving help your career? To find the answer, we analyzed 2,100 U.S. cities, and since not everyone wants to move to large urban centers, we also broke the list down into midsize and small cities.

In every category, the cities that are the best for women — when taking into account women’s wages, cost of living, unemployment and labor force participation rates — were squarely in middle America.

Key findings

More wealth in the health sector. Our top cities shared one key feature: a large health care sector presence. Government officials say this sector features a smaller wage gap than in the general workforce.

Happy in the middle? While the coasts maintain a reputation for progress, it is the Midwest that shines when it comes to opportunity for working women.

Pay and participation matter. Women are participating in the workforce at a lower rate than men, which compounds the fact that they are earning far less than their male counterparts for full-time work.

By the numbers

8.5%. The higher percentage of men than women participating in the labor force in Denver, Colorado.

$6,686. Amount men earn above the amount women make for the same full-time, year-round work in Columbus, Ohio.

69.3%. Women’s median earnings as a percentage of men’s for full-time employees in Irvine, California. This pay gap is wider than the study mean of 84.9% for large cities.

Best large cities for women in the workforce

1. Durham, North Carolina

Durham tops our list with a low cost of living, strong economic opportunities and a 77.6% workforce participation rate for women. The city is home to prestigious Duke University and its medical facilities, which together employ almost 35,000 people. Duke, IBM, Blue Cross and Blue Shield offices make Durham’s economy an attractive one, but the highlight for women: their median earnings for full-time work are $42,194, just $3,243 shy of their male counterparts.

2. Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Minneapolis area is one of the largest economies in the Midwest, second only to Chicago. Target and Wells Fargo have a large presence in the city. Both employers have created environments that support women in the workforce. Target provides emergency backup day care and offers flextime for new mothers. Wells Fargo has focused on entrepreneurship with a commitment to provide women with $55 billion in small-business loans through 2020.

3. Madison, Wisconsin

Here, in the capital of Wisconsin, the state is the largest employer, but Madison has much more to attract women. For the 81.6% of women in the city who work, opportunities include jobs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and its teaching hospital and clinics, Google, Microsoft and biotech companies.

4. St. Paul, Minnesota

The Twin Cities’ smaller half shares with Minneapolis the same strengths for working women. However, while rent is an affordable average of $818 a month, women’s earnings are less in St. Paul, at $39,752 a year, than in Minneapolis, where women earn $43,922. This makes St. Paul more expensive, but women here have an unemployment rate that is 2% less than men, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

5. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Even though Pittsburgh’s steel industry saw a steep decline along with the rest of manufacturing in the U.S., the city’s economy continues to reinvent itself. The city has attracted Google, Uber, Intel, IBM and others. Pittsburgh also has an environment ripe for innovation at its over 60 colleges and universities. One resource is PA Women Work, a statewide program that provides job training and counseling to support women who are entering or re-entering the thriving economy.

 Note: The data in the table are from 2013.

Best midsize cities for women in the workforce

1. Rochester, Minnesota

At the center of Rochester’s economy is its largest employer, the Mayo Clinic, where over 35,000 people work. IBM and the County of Olmsted employ an additional 3,300 people. These diverse employers keep unemployment low, and the rate is even lower for women. In 2013, the jobless rate for women was 3.7% or 0.3% below male unemployment. A strong employment picture paired with Rochester’s affordability — the lowest percent of women’s earnings are spent on rent for midsize cities on our list — makes the city an attractive place for women.

2. Fargo, North Dakota

Sanford Health, another large health care provider, anchors Fargo’s economy as the largest employer with about 6,700 workers. Women working in Fargo benefit from these health care jobs that keep the city’s unemployment rate low and the workforce participation rate high at 83.7% for women. Fargo also stands out in terms of affordability, with the lowest rent costs relative to women’s median earnings in a midsize city.

 3. Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Similar to Fargo, Sanford Health is Sioux Falls’ largest employer, but in this city in the south, the health care company has an even larger presence with 8,571 employees. Health care provider Avera Health also provides opportunities with over 6,200 jobs. The city’s tax codes help attract banks, including Wells Fargo and Citigroup.

4. Murfreesboro, Tennessee

Murfreesboro has almost doubled in size since 2000, to about 117,000 residents in 2013. The growth has been fueled by an economic expansion, especially in the health industry. In 2011, the community celebrated the opening of Middle Tennessee Medical Center, a $283 million medical facility that has also attracted other health care companies to the area, including hospital software provider Craneware.

5. Columbia, Missouri

This college town’s economy is deeply connected to the University of Missouri, the city’s largest employer. The area also has a large health care industry that’s anchored by the university’s hospital system and includes the University of Missouri Health Center, Boone Hospital Center and Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital. It isn’t uncommon for those living in rural areas of Missouri to travel to Columbia for medical care, which helps create an ongoing demand for health care workers.  

Note: The data in the table are from 2013.

Best small cities for women in the workforce

1. Jefferson City, Missouri

Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri, is unique in that women participate in the labor force at a 14% higher rate than men do. This means that more women are working or seeking work than men. So what kinds of jobs are available to this largely female workforce? Government jobs are common, since the state is the largest employer with over 14,000 employees. In the private sector, Scholastic Corp. dominates, with its National Service Organization employing the most people.

2. Morgantown, West Virginia

Morgantown’s West Virginia University drives innovation and produces a well-educated workforce. This helps keep unemployment low and wages high when compared with the cost of living. A woman working full time will spend 18.8% of her monthly earnings, which are higher than men’s wages, on rent.

3. Fitchburg, Wisconsin

Fitchburg makes our list with women’s strong median incomes of $45,388, which is higher than the median income of men in the city by a small margin. The city, a suburb of Madison, offers close proximity to the larger city’s jobs and educational opportunities, but the smaller city is a slightly more affordable community. Women and men in Fitchburg participate almost equally in the labor force and both sexes enjoy low unemployment.

4. Helena, Montana

This small capital city makes our list despite lower wages for women, whose earnings are 88.7% of what men who work full time make. However, the city has a very low unemployment rate for women — which is 4% lower than the jobless rate for men. Also in the city’s favor is the low cost of living: Women spend 20.7% of their income on median rent in the city.

5. Huntsville, Texas

Huntsville has a larger wage gap, with women’s earnings just under 80% of their male counterparts. This city makes the list for the number of women in the workforce, but given the large male prison population here, some census data on the labor force participation rate may be skewed. The city is home to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which is also the largest employer with over 6,700 employees, a large proportion for a town of 39,795 residents.

Note: The data in the table are from 2013.


We analyzed 2,100 cities across the U.S. We calculated the overall score for each place using the following measures:

1. Pay gap. Based on 2013 income data from the American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, we calculated women’s median earnings as a percentage of men’s for full-time, year-round workers. This was 25% of a city’s score.

2. Cost of living. Based on 2013 income and rent data from the American Community Survey, we found median gross rent as a percentage of women’s median monthly earnings. This was 25% of a city’s score.

3. Labor force participation. Based on 2013 labor force participation data from the American Community Survey, we found the difference between men and women in the labor force as measured by the participation rate, which is the percentage of adults ages 20-64 who are employed or who are seeking employment. This was 25% of a city’s final score.

4. Economic health. We looked at the 2013 unemployment rate from the American Community Survey. This was 25% of a city’s score.

We divided the 2,100 cities we analyzed into three groups: cities with a population up to 99,999, places with 100,000 to 199,999 residents and cities with over 200,000 residents.

Image via iStock.