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Women and the Recession: A Chance for Some Creative Destruction?

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Are women about to become the majority of the paid workforce? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women are on the cusp of outnumbering men on payrolls across America. While the percentage of men working or looking for employment has been dropping, the opposite phenomenon is occurring amongst women throughout the U.S. With unemployment at its highest since the Great Depression, women's increased participation and influence in our economy signifies the potential for profound transformation of American society.

Hidden within such a headline is this centuries-old fact: millions of women across the U.S. (and world) have never collected a paycheck for their work. Nor have they seen their contributions counted in any measure of national production, even though their labor keeps the planet populated and running day to day. Economists from Amartya Sen to Marianne Ferber have been writing for years about valuing work done in the home, and Ann Crittenden's seminal book, The Price of Motherhood, brought the issue to the mainstream. From raising children to managing households, the production value of women's labor would send GDP through the roof - if only it were taken into account.

Excluding women's unpaid labor from GDP and other economic indicators not only undercuts the true productivity of our nation; it fosters a society where women in the workforce are forced into what anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson calls "choiceless choices" - where the un/undervaluing of women's work often forces tremendous sacrifices to family, motherhood, and household earnings.

In a shifting economy with growing demand for income, women are working in ever-greater numbers. How will society and our institutions respond to the increasing strains between work and family?

Several weeks ago, Eric Zencey wrote in The New York Times that the current recession offers us an opportunity to capitalize on the concept of creative destruction - the replacement of outmoded economic structures by new, more suitable structures - by getting rid of GDP. Perhaps we can go one step further: re-conceptualizing the way in which we value our labor, and changing the institutional policies and structures which force women - and increasingly men - to make "choiceless choices" regarding work and family.

As the upcoming "White House Project Report: Benchmarking Women's Leadership" illustrates, women may be participating in equal - or in some cases, higher - numbers to their male peers in the workforce, yet they are few and far between when it comes to positions of leadership. While there are a number of reasons women are stalled at 19 percent across the leadership spectrum, a primary cause is the necessity of opting out (or opting in late) in order to have a family. And each time a woman opts out, the pool of ideas, talent, and experience among our decision makers shrinks.

The consequences can be devastating. Daniel Ferreira of the London School of Economics recently stated that more women on corporate boards "would have attenuated the crisis we are living now." Research coming out of Cranfield University is showing that mixed management teams make better business decisions while bringing more innovation to the table. And Catalyst has shown that Fortune 500 companies with high percentages of women officers experienced, on average, 35.1 percent higher return on equity and 34 percent higher total return to shareholders than did those with low percentages of women corporate officers. When we lose women in leadership, we lose a strong financial advantage as well.

Women and men each bring value to the table; it is their combined effort as partners that creates the richest foundation for innovation and prosperity. Yet our institutional and societal structures have limited the opportunities for both genders to work in full partnership. With all of the damage done by the recession, we can stand to benefit in the long run, if we are creative and committed to harnessing all of our nation's talent - women and men alike - to work, and be valued, together.