(WOMENSENEWS)--A flurry of February headlines announced, just in time for Women's History Month, that for the first time women outnumber men on the nation's payrolls.
Second-paragraph perspective pointed out that is mainly because of the depleted employee rolls of male-heavy industries like manufacturing and construction. Still, we've had recessions in the past and the balance had never tipped toward women. The fact is, women were already getting close.
There is no doubt that there is hard work ahead to guarantee fairness for all. But there are changes happening in the world of women and work--particularly leadership--that are transforming career opportunity and family dynamics.
One example: Two decades ago, about 18 percent of women in two-income families made more money than their husbands, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. By 2007, before the recession, it was 26 percent.
Women now earn 60 percent of all college degrees, half of all law and medical degrees and, according to the New York-based research group Catalyst, already fill more than half of management, professional and related positions. So there is every reason to assume that the female earnings trend will continue.
There will simply be more women making more money than ever before.
In the United States, women are also starting their own businesses at twice the rate of men. A study by Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., argues that if these female entrepreneurs had access to capital equal to men, they could create 6 million jobs in five years.
True, women are grossly underrepresented at the top. Female managers are bunched in the upper middle ranks of business, like a crowd waiting for a stalled elevator. Only 15 of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. While women are earning 6 in 10 college degrees, they make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes.
Leadership stereotyping, lack of mentoring, exclusion from development, positions that don't create a career track to the top and time out for family all help explain the disparity. There is important and effective work going on to attack that disparity through legislative remedies.
Allies in Dismantling Exclusion
In the long run, however, those efforts will be aided by powerful allies in the work of dismantling the machinery of exclusion and inequity.
One of them is supply and demand in a time of sweeping demographic change.
Aging industrialized nations such as the United States, Germany, China and Japan are losing talent to retirement just as globalized commerce needs more of it. By 2016, one- fifth of the U.S. working-age population (over 16) will be at least 65. That is going to clear out a lot of space on the top floors. It will also clear the stubborn pockets of antiquated assumptions about women taking care and men taking charge.
Economic growth will be in the service sector, where women are well represented and the path to senior ranks appears more open than in industries that have been historically male dominated.
Another factor is simply momentum. We are now seeing the arrival of a generation of young women who grew up believing they can be anything they want to be. As more female leaders reach the top, we can assume (at least hope) that they will open the way for more senior managers to follow. And those managers, in turn, will do the same.
There is also a growing realization that attracting and developing female talent is not just about fairness; it's about competitive advantage. A 2004 Catalyst survey of Fortune 500 companies indicated that companies with the highest percentage of women in senior positions had a 35 percent higher return on equity than companies with fewer female executives. A 2007 study by consultants McKinsey and Company found the stock of European companies with the highest percentage of female leaders rose 64 percent over two years, compared with the overall average of 47 percent.
While it is too early to claim cause and effect (do women make companies smart, or do smart companies make the most of all talent?), there is at least a correlation. And that correlation can only help the cause of female advancement.
But there is an open question. As demand for female talent grows, will women want to surge to the top? If they do, what does that mean for family life as we have come to know it?
Listen to many women, and the conversation trends toward that improbable state of being called work-life balance.
For anybody who has tried to find, let alone maintain, that balance, time is the merciless variable. The ancient Egyptians measured daylight, twilight and darkness and came up with the idea of a 24-hour day. Nothing has changed since then.
Much discussion came in the wake of a recent Pew survey that showed 66 percent of employed mothers would rather work part time, while 80 percent of employed fathers wanted to work full time. Those on the traditional side of the gender-role divide saw nature's tug toward home and family. Others saw a call for employers to assist in work-life balance.
Women Figuring It Out
Getting less attention from the survey was the finding that 85 percent of mothers with jobs said they are "very happy" or "pretty happy." That was higher than the 80 percent figure for stay-at-home moms. So if the study is to believed, somewhere, somehow a lot of women are figuring this out--or at least making peace with it.
Working women are never going to have it all, at least not all at the same time, assuming there is even a working definition for what "all" actually means.
Although there is considerable room for improvement in shared responsibilities, I believe we are seeing a generational shift where the issues in balancing family and work no longer automatically default to women.
The third in a series of surveys from 2007 to 2009 by the London Business School on female leadership in Europe found balance is equally important to both men and women--especially those in their 20s. Young men do not assume any difference in the arc of their careers versus their wives, the study reported. Both expect to be actively involved in raising children.
Still, women expressed more concern about how to make the balance work. Without role models, they feel they will have to "self author" their lives. In other words, they plan to make it up as they go along.
While there is considerable uncertainty in this time of transformation in the balance of gender power, this much is clear: more women with more education and more independence are making more money than at any time in our history.
The changes that will bring to organizations and families should keep headline writers busy for years to come.
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of psychology at Cornell University Medical College and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. She is the author of "Raising Boys Without Men" and her upcoming book is an exploratory study on fathers and daughters. She can be reached through her Web site: http://www.peggydrexler.com.
For more information:
The Center for Women's Leadership:
"Fewer Mothers Prefer Full-time Work," Pew Research Center: