History Is on Women's Side in the Workplace

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Amid all the statistics whirling around women and paid employment, Peggy Drexler steps back to spot history in the making during Women's History Month. The realities of the workplace, she says, favor women's further gains in leadership.

Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

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Peggy Drexler(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.

Competitive Advantage

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.

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