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Women and Work: How Goes the Revolution?

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We're more than 30 years into "the quiet revolution." So you'd think we'd have a little better handle on it by now.

It began in the late '70s, when women started to surge into colleges and graduate schools, and take their place in medicine, law, business, and other professions once reserved for men. Economist Claudia Goldin, who coined the term, said it's the most important thing to happen to labor markets in the last century.

The numbers support her. Women earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor's degrees, and more than half of all master's and Ph.D's. The research organization Catalyst says that women account for more than half of all managers and professionals--compared to 26 percent in the revolution's early days.

Even the wage gap is now subject to perspective. Carrie Lukas, executive director of the Independent Woman's Forum, argues in the Wall Street Journal that pay discrepancies tie directly to life decisions and career choices: Women are less likely, for example, to want to spend their day "plumbing," that is, fixing leaky pipes in dank, buggy basements, even though the pay might be considerably better than a job that offers nicer conditions and more regular hours.

In 30 years, women are settled in everywhere from the CEO's office to the Supreme Court to the battlefield to earth orbit. The term "first woman" that signified every breakthrough has lost its news value. There is just not that much of note to break through these days.

With one exception: the ongoing struggle for equilibrium, where the world of work presents more roadblocks and frustrations for women than it does for men.

Just last week, family historian and author Stephanie Coontz took a new look in the New York Times Sunday Review at the old issue of education and income versus prospects for marriage: the traditional thinking being that as the former goes up for heterosexual women, the latter goes down.

Her view: "Nonsense." Backed by copious statistics, she writes, "For a woman seeking a satisfying relationship as well as a secure economic future, there has never been a better time to be or become highly educated." The belief that female economic and educational accomplishments are landmines on the path to marital bliss is a holdover from a time when women were expected to choose: career versus home and family. Men, she believes, are adjusting quite nicely--with egos in check and dish towels in hand.

But what about companies?

Jack Welch, former GE CEO, management guru, and gravelly teller of hard truths recently told a convention of human resources professionals, "There is no such thing as work-life balance." Instead: "There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences." No matter how you slice it, he says, time off for family is a big detour in the climb to the higher reaches of big organizations.

In a book called Beside Every Successful Man, Megan Basham sees the choice as binary. She says that a woman should abandon her career and put every bit of her energy into helping her husband advance his.Her reasoning is that you can make up for the loss of one paycheck by pooling resources to maximize the other. Besides, she writes, women do not really want careers: "Ask a group of mothers if they would continue to work full time if they didn't have to and the answer will overwhelmingly come back 'No!'"

A good wife, Basham believes, employs "all the wonderful talent, intelligence, and skill she possesses to help her husband get ahead." The payoff is more quality family time for both husband and wife.

The book, as might be expected, drew sulfurous reviews. But it also got attention.

The New York Times reports that more than 412,000 women have dropped out of the labor force in the past two years, while men are gaining jobs much faster than women as the economy heals.

Bad news for women? Not really.

Men appear to be taking whatever job they can find. Women--mostly Millennials--who have gone back to school will come back into the workforce with new skills to compete for the job they want. Some even say these newly-equipped women will help drive the next economic boom.

So: how goes the quiet revolution? Have we traveled far? Are we drifting sideways? Are we losing ground?

There are statistically malleable arguments to support all three positions.

But there is another question.

As we enter the fourth decade of the revolution, how long will those questions be relevant?

Talent is the only competitive advantage that can't be bought or copied. Like most things valued, it's going to flow to where it's well treated--where life, work, and compensation come together in the most attractive package.

In the process, questions about the place of women in work should become as relevant as carbon paper.

How soon? It won't take another 30 years.