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Dr. Peggy Drexler

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Women and Work -- Where to Now?

Posted: 11/16/11 12:00 PM ET

Regardless of where you fall on the scale of feminist ideology -- great progress to stubborn inequality -- in the arena of women and work, big shifts are afoot. The direction is clear. The destination is not. But by all indications, work and families have some adjustments ahead.

First the numbers. There was a flurry of headlines that, for the first time, there were more women in the workforce than men. 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.

While there is still a wage gap, it's narrowing. One example with interesting implications for families: according to the Bureau of Labor statistics, two decades ago, 17.8 percent of women in two-income families made more money than their husbands. In 2007 -- even before the cresting of the layoffs -- it was 26 percent. With the flow of female graduates out of professional schools, and the fact that they already make up half of middle management positions, there is every reason to assume that the trend will continue. There will simply be more women making more money than ever before.

The glass half-empty contingent counters quickly with the statistics that show women bunched in the in the middle ranks like a crowd waiting for a stalled elevator. True, the numbers at the top reflect a puzzling lack of females.

We can debate the reasons for the disparity -- leadership stereotyping, lack of mentoring, exclusion from development, positions that don't create a career track to the top and time out for family. None of this is fair. None of it is right. But in the long run, none of it is going to be particularly important.

In the time it would take to dismantle the machinery of exclusion and inequity, events will do the job for us.

Economic growth will be in the service sector, where women are well represented and where, one could argue, the path to the senior ranks is more open than in industries that have been historically male dominated. Also, factor in the millions of female entrepreneurs starting new businesses; and the fact that organizations with females at the highest levels have more females being positioned to follow.

All things considered, the demand for female talent is going to grow exponentially. But what about the supply? Do women want to surge to the top the way they surged to the middle? And if they do, what does that mean to 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.

One issue emerging in the inevitability of the female rise to power is what it means to those who have held that power throughout time. This has never happened before. We simply don't know what it means or where it will take us.

Can men evolve psychologically to match how women have evolved financially? We have eons of emotional wiring to unravel here.

There are more women with more education and more independence making more money than at any time in our history. How fast and in what numbers will they rise to positions of top leadership? And what will that mean to the fundamentals of organizations and families.

The power structures are changing. We are in the process of witnessing how new structures will work, and the world they will create.

 
 
 

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