Women Are the New Men: Reviewing and Leveraging Women’s Bold New World of Work

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by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.

Recent research suggests that companies helmed by women outperform other companies.

Several experts have asserted that too much testosterone-driven risk-taking behavior may have been behind the financial meltdown of 2008.

And one consulting firm that helps organizations execute gender-balance initiatives speculates that if a number of senior-level women had not left BP, the spring 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill might not have occurred.

While the implications behind these observations don’t provide definitive evidence of women’s dominance in the workplace, some irrefutable facts point to significant gains by women that are reshaping the gender scene in the world of work.

This article looks at five trends that suggest a gender shift in the U.S. workforce. These trends and other research on women at work and in school point to opportunities that women can leverage to advance their careers. Some of these opportunities favor teen girls and young women, who can take advantage of them while still in school and as they are launching their careers.

I describe these in a sidebar, How Teen Girls and Young Women Can Leverage Gender Trends in the Workplace. I detail trends that favor older, established career women in the sidebar How Established Career Women Can Leverage Gender Trends in the Workplace.

Let’s look at five trends that point to a gender shift:

Women’s gains in education continue to eclipse men’s.

This trend isn’t new, but women’s predominance among the college-educated continues to surge. Writing in The Atlantic, Hannah Rosin calls the gender gap in higher education a “quiet revolution,” noting, “This is the first time that the cohort of Americans ages 30 to 44 has more college-educated women than college-educated men.” Women account for about 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of master’s degrees, about half of law and medical degrees, and close to half of PhDs (and among U.S. citizens, women have outnumbered male doctoral-degree earners since 2002). They lag a bit in MBA degrees, accounting for 42 percent. Women’s enrollments have risen faster than men’s, reports Marcus B. Weaver-Hightower in Change: The Magazine of Higher Education, with a 29 percent jump in female enrollments between 1997 and 2007 compared to a 22 percent increase for male enrollments. “The gap, which remained modest for some time, is widening,” wrote Melana Zyla Vickers in 2006 in The Weekly Standard.

The gender gap is so profound in undergrad degree programs that some universities discriminate in favor of men (Rosin and others cite Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College, Gambier, OH, who in 2006 wrote an op-ed column, To All the Girls I’ve Rejected, for the New York Times.)

Women are also engaged in more aspects of their education than are men, Weaver-Hightower notes, based on the 2009 National Survey of Student Engagement, and more men than women drop out before graduation. As of 2007, 28 percent of wives had more education than their spouses, while only 19 percent of wives had less education, noted the Christian Science Monitor in an editorial, dramatically reversing trends of 40 years ago.

For the first time, women outnumber men in the U.S. workforce.

Many experts point to the recession as the reason behind women’s ascendancy into the majority of the workforce. Men have been laid off in greater numbers than women — three-quarters of the 8 million jobs lost were lost by men, Rosin reports — and industry sectors that have lost the most jobs tend to be those that are historically male-dominated — such as construction, manufacturing, and finance. So brutally has the recession affected men that Ella L. J. Edmondson Bell, Ph.D., in The Huffington Post, joined others who have called it a “mancession.”

Future job growth looks brighter for women, too, with Rosin noting that “of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are occupied primarily by women.” Citing economists, Catherine Rampell notes in the New York Times, “The longer-term trend of stronger [female] representation on the nation’s payrolls will most likely continue.”

Organizations that develop women perform better than those that don’t.

Though the research receives shockingly little publicity, several studies have suggested a connection between strong performance and women at the top:

  • Since 2007, the consulting firm McKinsey has released research reports, entitled Women Matter, about gender diversity and corporate performance. The first report, Women Matter 1, demonstrated a correlation between a company’s performance and the proportion of women serving on its executive board.
  • In listing the NAFE 2010 Top 50 Companies for Executive Women, the National Association for Female Executives (NAFE) noted that “while last year was dismal for most of corporate America, it wasn’t for many companies with women at the top. The standouts among this year’s winners include many companies helmed by female CEOs.”
  • The late Roy Adler, who was a marketing professor at Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA, (as he reported in 2009 in Miller-McCune magazine) “tracked the performance of Fortune 500 companies with a strong record of promoting women to the executive suite and compared their performance to that of other firms in the same industries,” concluding that “the correlation between high-level female executives and business success has been consistent and revealing.” Conducting his research in 2001, 2004, and 2005-2007, Adler said, “In every one of those years, the companies identified as being the best at promoting women outperformed the industry median on all three profitability measures.” In 2008, responding to critics who questioned the use of the same criteria for selecting women-friendly companies year after year, Adler “changed the selection criteria for 2008. For this study, we used the list of the ‘100 Most Desirable MBA Employers’ for women reported by Fortune magazine” and found that “the firms that were identified as being ideal for women MBAs outperformed the industry medians on every measure.”

Women, now in a majority in middle-management positions, demonstrate leadership qualities that may make them especially well-suited to management.

Citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Rosin notes that “women now hold 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs — up from 26.1 percent in 1980. They make up 54 percent of all accountants and hold about half of all banking and insurance jobs. About a third of America’s physicians are now women, as are 45 percent of associates in law firms — and both those percentages are rising fast.”

Since the feminist movement began in the 1970s, much research has been conducted on women in management. Early advice suggested that women behave more like men to be good managers and get ahead. Research in the 1990s began to distinguish between men’s and women’s leadership styles and assert that women possessed certain characteristics particularly well suited to management. In the first decade of the 2000s, research has tended to continue focusing on differences between male and female management traits. Some highlights:

  • In 2009, a New York Times interview with Carol Smith, senior vice president and chief brand officer for media company Elle Group, generated more than 300 comments for her statement, “Hands down women are better [managers]. There’s no contest. In my experience, female bosses tend to be better managers, better advisers, mentors, rational thinkers.”
  • An article in The Scientist by Edyta Zielinska reacting to the Smith interview’s claim of female managerial superiority, looked at women’s leadership prowess particularly in scientific research and cited several studies indicating that women excel in certain managerial traits, such as rewarding performance and considering individual growth. “New research shows that workers today look for what’s called a transformational leader,” Zielinska wrote, “one that innovates, mentors and pushes employees to develop their creativity and personal skills. In a meta-analysis of leadership styles, women made up 52.5 percent of the above-average transformational leaders, while men comprised 47.5 percent.” Zielinska also cites a study in the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies in which “female leaders were rated as more ‘charismatic,’ defined as more likely to recognize the skills, abilities and limitations of members of their organization and facilitate positive group dynamics and mutual respect.” Rosin elaborates: “The new model is sometimes called ‘post-heroic,’ or ‘transformational’ in the words of the historian and leadership expert James MacGregor Burns. The aim is to behave like a good coach, and channel your charisma to motivate others to be hardworking and creative. The model is not explicitly defined as feminist, but it echoes literature about male-female differences.”
  • Sally Helgesen, one of the superstars of 1990s research on women’s distinctive leadership traits, with her 1990 book The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership published a new book, The Female Vision in 2010 (co-authored with Julie Johnson) that asserts: “Women see the world through a distinctive lens and can use their vision to their advantage.” (See our review of Helgesen’s book.)
  • In the followups to the McKinsey Women Matter report mentioned above Women Matter 2 showed that the leadership behaviors more often applied by women reinforce a company’s organizational performance on several dimensions, while Women Matter 3 recommends that companies should follow the example of the most advanced firms to accelerate the progress of gender diversity.
  • Rosin, in her article in The Atlantic, states: “The attributes that are most valuable today — social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus — are, at a minimum, not predominantly male.”
  • Several authors connect men (and even testosterone) to a tendency toward the kind of excessive risk and recklessness that led to 2008’s financial meltdown. “The picture emerging is a mirror image of the traditional gender map,” Rosin writes, “men and markets on the side of the irrational and overemotional, and women on the side of the cool and levelheaded.”

Gen Y women are earning more than men in large metro areas.

Although this trend is specific to younger women, it’s important because it demonstrates the long-range effect of our first trend — women’s educational gains.

In 2007, Dr. Andrew Beveridge published (in New York’s Gotham Gazette) an analysis of census data showing that in New York City and several other major cities (such as Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Dallas) women 21 to 30, working fulltime, are making more money than men.

Beveridge, a demographer and chair of the sociology department at Queens College, offered (in an interview with NPR’s Lynn Neary) this hypothesis on the reason behind young women’s earning power in major metro areas:

It turns out that in New York … women are much better educated than men in that age group. In other words, there are many more of them are college grads… And so I think that what has happened is that women have really moved ahead educationally. And by virtue of that fact have been able to move ahead occupationally.

These young women are in the vanguard. Given women’s pervasive educational progress, especially compared to that of men, might it not be just a matter of time before their earning power spreads to other regions? And as more and more young female college grads enter the workforce, increasing numbers of women will achieve or exceed economic parity with men.

Final Thoughts on Women in the Workforce

Of course, women still lag in several important areas. Most still earn no more than about 80 cents for every dollar a man earns, and precious few of them can be found at the highest organizational levels — just 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, Rosin reports. But the stars and planets may just have aligned at this moment in history to signal a true shift in women’s career fortunes. Rosin quotes Jamie Ladge, a business professor at Northeastern University: “When we look back on this period, we will see it as a “turning point for women in the workforce.” To learn how to make the most of this turning-point era, be sure to read our sidebars, How Teen Girls and Young Women Can Leverage Gender Trends in the Workplace and How Established Career Women Can Leverage Gender Trends in the Workplace.

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.

Katharine Hansen, PhD, QuintCareers.com Creative Director Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.

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