Women and Work: Then, Now, and Predicting the Future

Business Women in the Workplace

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Tired of reading about Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's Chief Operating Officer and author of the book, "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead"? Sandberg and other successful women such as Marillyn Hewson, CEO of Lockheed Martin, Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, Abigail Johnson, CEO of Fidelity Investments or Mary Barra, CEO of GM are the poster face for the 'You've come a long way, baby' spin doctors.

You can applaud and laud the work success of these businesswomen and hope all people learn from their wisdom and achievements. Indeed, some of these women are personal heroes to many others who are striving for business success. Rock on!

However, what is happening to the rest of the women in the workforce? More importantly, what does the future hold for businesswomen in the workplace?

Do you want to know what women have achieved now and what the future holds for women and work? Let's polish up the crystal ball and make a few predictions based on current statistics and projections about women and work. You'll take a look at the then and now statistics and discuss the future of women and work.

Objectives and ideas to help employers continue to accomplish this progress for women in the workplace are also recommended. Read on to learn more about this significant and important topic.

What Percentage of Women Work?


"In 1950 about one in three women participated in the labor force. By 1998, nearly three of every five women of working age were in the labor force. Among women age 16 and over, the labor force participation rate was 33.9 percent in 1950, compared with 59.8 percent in 1998.

63.3 percent of women age 16 to 24 worked in 1998 versus 43.9 percent in 1950.

76.3 percent of women age 25 to 34 worked in 1998 versus 34.0 percent in 1950.

77.1 percent of women age 35 to 44 worked in 1998 versus 39.1 percent in 1950.

76.2 percent of women age 45 to 54 worked in 1998 versus 37.9 percent in 1950.

51.2 percent of women age 55 to 64 worked in 1998 versus 27 percent in 1950.

8.6 percent of women age 65+ worked in 1998 versus 9.7 percent in 1950.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor: Changes in Women's Work Participation


"As more women are added to the labor force, their share will approach that of men. In 2008, women will make up about 48 percent of the labor force and men 52 percent. In 1988, the respective shares were 45 and 55 percent."

Source: U.S. Department of Labor: Women's Share of Labor Force

Women and Absenteeism


As you might expect because of home and family matters, "in 1998, about 4 percent of full-time workers were absent from their job during an average workweek—meaning they worked less than 35 hours during the week because of injury, illness, or a variety of other reasons. About 5.1 percent of women (including 5.6 percent of women aged 20 to 24) were absent in the average week, compared with 2.7 percent of men Among those absent, women were somewhat more likely to be absent for reasons other than injury or illness. One-third of women’s compared with less than one-quarter of men’s absences were attributed to other reasons."

Source: U.S. Department of Labor: Women's Absenteeism


The number of women will continue to increase in the workforce. Women will continue to have primary responsibility for home and family matters, thus affecting work attendance negatively.

What Employers Can Do:

Employers will be challenged to provide family-friendly solutions for working people who need flexibility for child care and eldercare. These solutions may include:

Attendance systems that are inflexible will drive qualified and committed employees to employers that address family issues with creativity and concern.

Employers need to pay more attention to the Equal Employment Opportunity guidelines. They exist to create equity and too many employers are still working them as a numbers game because of reporting requirements.

As recommended by the Women Employed Institute, make women more aware of careers that offer higher pay opportunities. Most women's jobs are clustered in "female" occupations that pay poorly. Promote and educate women about these opportunities so women pursue opportunities for education in these higher-paying opportunities.

Catalyst, which monitors the progress of women in the workplace, reported that as of 1998, only 2.7 percent of the highest-paid officers at Fortune 500 companies were women. Women continue to dominate lower-paying domestic, clerical support, and administrative-type occupations.

Next, you'll take a look at how women have progressed in earnings and education and consider employers' opportunities to escalate the progress.

Interested in Women's Earnings and Education?

"The median weekly earnings of women age 35-44 as a percentage of men’s increased from 58.3 percent to 73.0 percent from 1979 to 1993, a rise of 14.7 percentage points.

There also was an increase in the female-to-male earnings ratio among those aged 45 to 54 from 1979 to 1993."

Source: U.S. Department of Labor: Women's Earnings

"In 1998, women in managerial and professional occupations earned much more per week than women in other occupations. Their median weekly earnings were 56 percent greater than those of technical, sales, and administrative support workers, the next-highest category."

Source: U.S. Department of Labor: Women in Managerial, Professional Occupations Earn More

"A look at women’s earnings over the past 20 years shows a mixed picture of progress. Women’s inflation-adjusted earnings have increased by nearly 14 percent since 1979, whereas men’s have declined by about 7 percent. But while women’s earnings have improved relative to men’s, full-time working women found themselves making only about 76 percent of what men earned in 1998. Earnings for women with college degrees shot up almost 22 percent over the past two decades but, for women without post-secondary education, there was little advancement."

Source: Monthly Labor Review Online, "Women's Earnings," (December 1999).

"Women employed full time in professional specialty occupations earned $682 in 1998, more than women employed in any other major occupational category. Within this occupation group, women working as physicians, pharmacists and lawyers had the highest median earnings.

"Women's share of employment in occupations typified by high earnings has grown. In 1998, 46.4 percent of full-time wage and salary workers in executive, administrative, and managerial occupations were women, up from 34.2 percent in 1983, the first year for which comparable data are available. Over the same time period, women as a proportion of professional specialty workers rose from 46.8 percent to 51.6 percent.

"In contrast, there was relatively little change in women's share of full-time wage and salary employment in the remaining occupational groups. In 1983, women held 77.7 percent of administrative support occupations; in 1998, they still held 76.3 percent of those jobs." Women represented 7.9 percent of precision production, craft, and repair workers, in 1983 and in 1998.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor: Highlights of Women's Earnings


"Among 1998 high school graduates, more women than men enrolled in college. As of October, 938,000 young women who graduated from high school in 1998 were in college while 906,000 young men were enrolled." The trend of more women attending college continues.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor: Women's Education


Pay to women will continue to lag the pay men earn in similar careers, even when the woman has more education. The trend of more women attending college will continue, although I'll look at the majors they are pursuing later in this feature. Chosen studies are affecting both their pay and their employability potential.

What Employers Can Do:

Employers, most importantly, need to be knowledgable about the pay gap that still exists between men and women doing comparable work. Managers, at all levels, who control salaries and budgets, need to make a commitment to paying people, regardless of gender, the same amount of money for comparable work.

Women need to stay in touch with their own workplace. If a woman knows she is making less money than a man, and all other issues appear to be equal, she owes it to herself to take the case to her boss and to Human Resources. She can help to create a more gender-friendly workplace and promote her own worth.

Employers need to pay more attention to the Equal Employment Opportunity guidelines. They exist to create equity and too many employers are still working them as if they are a numbers game because of tracking and reporting requirements. I'd be so happy to see a genuine commitment to paying people equitably based on contribution.

As recommended by the Women Employed Institute, make women more aware of careers that offer higher pay opportunities. Most women's jobs are clustered in "female" occupations that pay poorly. Promote and educate women about these opportunities so women pursue opportunities for education in these higher-paying opportunities.

Catalyst, which monitors the progress of women in the workplace, reported that as of 1998, only 2.7 percent of the highest-paid officers at Fortune 500 companies were women. Women continue to dominate lower-paying domestic, clerical support, and administrative-type occupations.

Next, let's take a look at current numbers of women in science and technology careers, predicted to offer great opportunities in the next decades. Then, we'll consider what employers can do to encourage the participation of women in these careers.

Interested in Women in Science and Technology?

"According to the 2001 Current Population Survey (CPS) data, one out of ten employed engineers was a woman, while two of ten employed engineering technologists and technicians were women. Among engineering specialties, industrial, chemical, and metallurgical/materials engineers were the only occupations in which women were more highly represented than the overall percentage of total women engineers.

Among natural scientists, women represented 51.6 percent of medical scientists and 44.4 percent of biological and life scientists but accounted for a smaller portion of geologists and geodesists (24.0 percent), physicists, and astronomers (7.7 percent).

"Employment of women has lagged in most of the high-tech occupations that show promise for future growth. Software and hardware providers have gained acceptance as mechanisms for preparing high-technology workers for employment opportunities in the field. The challenges for women are to find more pathways into high-tech occupations, and into opportunities in the new certification universe. They also need to enter high-tech occupations in greater numbers."

An increasing number of colleges are enrolling more women than men in their medical schools. "Women comprised just over 45 percent of applicants and new students at U.S. medical schools in 1999-2000. The proportion of women medical residents increased from 28 percent of all residents in 1989 to 38 percent in 1999 according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Women in US Academic Medicine Statistics 1999-2000."

Source: American Medical Women's Association

In the field of veterinary medicine, the progress of women is even further along. "Now most students at veterinary schools are women, and by 2005, women will become the majority in the profession, says the American Veterinary Medical Association. While the number of female veterinarians in the United States has more than doubled since 1991, to 24,356, the number of male veterinarians has fallen 15 percent, to 33,461.”

Source: New York Times: Yilu Zhao (June 9, 2002)


Here's the challenge. Traditionally, career fields that became the purview of women became marginalized in terms of pay, prospects, and status. It's not the purpose of this article to trace that history but instead to think about careers that were once male-dominated that are now overwhelmingly populated by women: clerical positions, administrative jobs, nursing, teaching, social work, and retail positions. Will veterinary medicine and the medical field, especially family practice, general, and internal medicine follow the same path?

The answer, unfortunately, is 'yes.' When women dominate a field, the field becomes less appealing and attractive as an occupation.

Additionally, while women are making progress, as a society, the statistics show the percentage of women moving into education for high technology and hard science careers is declining in 2002. (See the "Wired News" article below, as an example.

What Employers Can Do:

This is a tough area in which to make recommendations for employers. So much of an individual's set of interests and values is formulated early in life via the home and peer environment and school experiences and successes. While the world is making progress, as a society, girls and boys are still raised, counseled, and treated very differently. (This article, "Why Girls Don't Compute," from "Wired News," highlights some of the challenges.) There are, however, efforts employers can make.

Offer women training and education opportunities that will prepare them for promotion to positions in technology and science.

Hire an equal number of women into employer-sponsored training and education programs that will prepare them for a career path in higher-paying, technology-related positions.

Expose women to technology and work with computers. Many have just not had the opportunity and may have an unrealistic understanding of the skills and knowledge required to successfully operate a computer.

Work with your local elementary school, middle school, high school, community college, and college to ensure that programs and educational opportunities are in place that exposes girls to technology, math, and science, in addition to helping careers, early. Ensure that clubs, science project competitions, and all other opportunities, reach out equally to girls.

In this work environment, given the challenges employers face in creating flexible work environments and promoting women in careers with high pay and high status, is it any wonder that women are starting their own businesses in droves?

Interested in Women-Owned Business?


"Women-owned businesses are privately held firms in which women own 51 percent or more of the firm. The U.S. Census Bureau's latest Survey of Women-Owned Business Enterprises (SWOBE) reported that women-owned 5,417,034 U.S. non-farm businesses in 1997. Women-owned businesses made up 26.0 percent of the nation's 20.8 million non-farm businesses, employed 7.1 million paid workers, and generated $818.7 billion in sales and receipts.

"For businesses owned by minority women, Hispanic women-owned 337,708 firms; Black women-owned 312,884 firms; Asian and Pacific Islander women-owned 247,966 firms; and American Indian and Alaska Native women-owned 53,593 firms. White non-Hispanic women-owned 4,487,589 million firms.

"Over half (55 percent) of women-owned firms were in the services industry in 1997. Within the services industry, women were most likely to operate firms in business services (769,250 firms) and personal services (634,225 firms). The combined sales and receipts for these two sectors totaled $78.3 billion.

"Women-owned businesses had total sales and receipts of $818.7 billion in 1997. The four industries that produced the largest total revenues for women-owned businesses in 1997 were wholesale trade, services, retail trade, and manufacturing. Women-owned firms operating in wholesale trade--durable and non-durable goods--recorded receipts of $188.5 billion.

"Those operating in services--for example, hotels and other lodging places; personal services; business services; auto repair, services, and parking; miscellaneous repair services; motion pictures; amusement and recreation services; health services; legal services; and educational services--had sales of $186.2 billion. Women-owned firms in retail trade had sales of $152.0 billion and those in manufacturing had sales of $113.7 billion.

"Nearly three-fourths (72 percent) of minority women-owned firms operated in the services (531,532 firms) and retail trade (133,924 firms) industries. Firms owned by minority women recorded total sales and receipts of $84.7 billion in 1997. Those owned by Asian and Pacific Islander women earned $38.1 billion; Hispanic women, $27.3 billion; Black women, $13.6 billion; and American Indian and Alaska Native women, $6.8 billion."

Source: U.S. Department of Labor: Women Business Owners


Employers will be unable to meet the flexibility requirements of many women. Women-owned businesses will become the career of choice for many women. Women-owned employer firms grew by 37 percent from 1997 to 2002, four times the growth rate of all employer firms.

While the majority of firms started by women since 1997 are in the service industry, there are a growing number of women starting firms in non-traditional industries such as construction and finance. The Center for Women's Business Research provides an article based on unpublished census data and other original research sources to present these figures.

What Employers Can Do:

Employers can follow the recommendations made in the first three parts of this article to stem the tide of talented women starting their own businesses. But, the tidal wave has started and will be difficult to stop. Women are increasingly in touch with the flexibility, empowerment, and challenge inherent in owning and operating a small business, large business, or even a home-based business or sole-proprietorship. Increasingly, employers will compete with this option for talented female employees.

Resources for Women Considering Starting a Business:

The Center for Women's Business Research

The National Association of Women Business Owners