2010 Heralds Female Majority in the American Workforce
Accordingly, more and more major news outlets, themselves the beneficiaries of and sometime obstacles to women’s ascendancy (the sudden death of Deborah Howell, a titanic shatterer of journalism’s glass ceiling, provides a fresh reminder of this), are trumpeting the imminent female majority in the workplace.
An important harbinger of this trend was The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, released in October by California First Lady Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress. The report is long and appropriately extensive, but top-line results from the introductory chapter, “The New Breadwinners”, included the following:
-As of July 2009, women comprised 49.9% of the paid American workforce. In 1969, women made up 35.3% of the same population.
-39.3% of American mothers are their families’ primary breadwinners, and 62.8% are breadwinners or co-breadwinners. Of “typical” married heterosexual couples, the wife brings home 42.2% of her family’s collective earnings.
-African American women have historically been likelier to work outside the home than other women. As of 2007, 61.1% of Black women worked, compared to 59% of white women, 58.6% of Asian women, and 56.5% of Hispanic women.
-Women continue to be paid 23 cents less than men for every American dollar earned.
This indicates a tremendous shift in favor of a woman’s agency in choosing her career, but everything’s not coming up ovaries yet. Affordable childcare, paid time off including family and maternity leave (parsed in the excellent “Family Friendly for All Families” chapter of the Shriver Report), women in corporate leadership positions, and equal pay have not yet caught up with women’s meteoric professional rise.
Following a feature article, “Paycheck Feminism,” in the Fall 2009 issue of Ms. Magazine released concurrently with the Shriver Report, the first 2010 issue of The Economist heralds this female upward mobility with its cover story “We Did It!: What happens when women are over half the workforce”. Emblazoned with the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter, the Economist coverage places women over the halfway hump, at 51% of the American workforce in 2010.
Yet too many women are still forced to choose between having a career or children, as the Economist, like the Shriver Report, underscores. It cites a particularly biting study of graduates of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, which found only half of its women MBA graduates who had become mothers remained in the workforce.
Unsurprisingly, as a result of this conflict, working women have continued to concentrate in the “helping” professions, which often allow them more child-friendly schedules. The central article of the Economist series, “Women in the workforce: Female power”, argues:
"The feminisation of the workforce has been driven by the relentless rise of the service sector (where women can compete as well as men) and the equally relentless decline of manufacturing (where they could not). The landmark book in the rise of feminism was arguably not Ms. Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” but Daniel Bell’s “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society.”"
But the qualitative lag in this upward mobility—that is to say, the reason many more women still become teachers rather than engineers—is being examined more closely, if recent news coverage is any indication. Two articles in the first business week of 2010, one from the mainstream media and one from that nebulous, self-proclaimed niche known as “progressive” media, detail women’s challenges to the male domination of engineering, specifically.
The first, from the Washington Post, details one effort, in Bethesda, MD, to foster skilled interest in engineering and science in high school girls. The second, from Campus Progress, highlights the stark minority of women in engineering majors at the college level, examining the ways in which women band together to weather the nearly all-male classes, and how they cope with the lack of female role models in their fields.
"The real challenges for reaching out to young women is to get over the stereotype that this isn't something girls do and then to help them build their confidence," Betty Shanahan, executive director of the Society of Women Engineers, said for the Washington Post article.
Neither article addressed racial disparities in the sciences, though perhaps tellingly, the picture that accompanied Campus Progress’s story depicted two young Asian women. The Economist was franker about the role of class, at least, in working women’s influence, prefacing “Female power” with the backhanded disclaimer: “Across the rich world more women are working than ever before” (italics mine).
As a whole, this torrent of media coverage of American career women perhaps indicates most clearly not what we have already achieved, but that for which we must continue to strive: federally mandated paid family leave (both Shriver and the Economist note that America lags behind many other Western economies in failing to provide paid maternity leave, for example), a more nuanced examination of the roles of race and class in women’s ascendant potential, and a dedicated exorcism of “gender asbestos,” or “inherent sexism built into corporate structures and processes” (Economist, Schumpeter, 48) from the American workplace at large.
My mother and I recently had a long talk about my career path. Graduating as one of 13 Chemistry majors in her all-female college class in the mid-1960s, she went on to a career in high school science education before and after I was born, punctuated by stints as an insurance executive, a human resources manager, an accounting clerk, director of a department of systems analysts and computer programmers. and a preschool computer instructor--not to mention five years of full-time mothering. Her favorite adage about women and work has long been “Women can do anything. Just not all at the same time.” That may have been true for her generation. I predict it won’t be for mine.