Women and work: We did it!

30-12-2009, The Economist

The rich world’s quiet revolution: women are gradually taking over the workplace

AT A time when the world is short of causes for celebration, here is a candidate: within the next few months women will cross the 50% threshold and become the majority of the American workforce. Women already make up the majority of university graduates in the OECD countries and the majority of professional workers in several rich countries, including the United States. Women run many of the world’s great companies, from PepsiCo in America to Areva in France.

Women’s economic empowerment is arguably the biggest social change of our times. Just a generation ago, women were largely confined to repetitive, menial jobs. They were routinely subjected to casual sexism and were expected to abandon their careers when they married and had children. Today they are running some of the organisations that once treated them as second-class citizens. Millions of women have been given more control over their own lives. And millions of brains have been put to more productive use. Societies that try to resist this trend—most notably the Arab countries, but also Japan and some southern European countries—will pay a heavy price in the form of wasted talent and frustrated citizens.

 This revolution has been achieved with only a modicum of friction. Men have, by and large, welcomed women’s invasion of the workplace. Yet even the most positive changes can be incomplete or unsatisfactory. This particular advance comes with two stings. The first is that women are still under-represented at the top of companies. Only 2% of the bosses of America’s largest companies and 5% of their peers in Britain are women. They are also paid significantly less than men on average. The second is that juggling work and child-rearing is difficult. Middle-class couples routinely complain that they have too little time for their children. But the biggest losers are poor children—particularly in places like America and Britain that have combined high levels of female participation in the labour force with a reluctance to spend public money on child care.

Dealing with the juggle
These two problems are closely related. Many women feel they have to choose between their children and their careers. Women who prosper in high-pressure companies during their 20s drop out in dramatic numbers in their 30s and then find it almost impossible to regain their earlier momentum. Less-skilled women are trapped in poorly paid jobs with hand-to-mouth child-care arrangements. Motherhood, not sexism, is the issue: in America, childless women earn almost as much as men, but mothers earn significantly less. And those mothers’ relative poverty also disadvantages their children.

Demand for female brains is helping to alleviate some of these problems. Even if some of the new theories about warm-hearted women making inherently superior workers are bunk, several trends favour the more educated sex, including the “war for talent” and the growing flexibility of the workplace. Law firms, consultancies and banks are rethinking their “up or out” promotion systems because they are losing so many able women=

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