In her book, “The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They Are Changing the World,” social anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher explains: “Tomorrow belongs to women.” Looking back to prehistoric times, Fisher shows how the structure of the female brain enables women to do “web thinking” or “synthesis thinking,” compared to men’s more linear or “step” thinking. Using lively anecdotes and fascinating stories, Fisher reveals how women’s special talents — superior verbal abilities, people-savvy, acute senses, healing techniques, and more — are geared to success in today’s worlds of medicine, education, communications, law, philanthropy, and government. Changes in society — including the growth of the communications economy and new trends in family — also play to women’s strengths and give women an advantage.
The year 2020 marks the 100-year anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave US women the right to vote. “Women have come a long way since the 20th century, and progress doesn’t seem to be slowing down,” says futurist Dr. Andy Hines, professor of futures studies at the University of Houston. “In fact, almost 40 percent of working wives in the United States are now “breadwomen” — their household’s primary breadwinner, according to the Pew Research Center.” What’s more, he notes that women dominate the fastest-growing professions. Nine of the 10 job categories that are expected to grow the most through 2020 — such as education and healthcare — will be dominated by women. What will that mean for your career, and your family? Don’t miss this podcast interview with Hines and Future in Focus magazine editor Hope Katz Gibbs.
By Michael Vidikan, CEO, Future In Focus
When studying the future of women in the workforce, futurists have come to think of the trend as “The Rise of the Breadwomen.” Why? Because the Great Recession of 2008–2009 strengthened and accelerated trends in male/ female workforce participation that were already underway.
As recently as 1970, only 4 percent of American wives out-earned their husbands. That share rose steadily for the next three and a half decades, to 22 percent in 2007. Then, when the recession hit in 2009, it spiked to almost 38 percent as men lost three-fourths of the 7 million US jobs, which seemingly evaporated. In turn, the share of US women supporting their families single-handedly rose to an all-time high of 7 percent — nearly 4 million women — while the share of men who were sole breadwinners sank to 18 percent.
Granted, this sudden jump in “breadwomen” was partly temporary; unemployment for men has since fallen, more than it has for women. But trends related to the situations of both women and men should ensure that what Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy called “the Big Flip” will continue to strengthen for more than a generation.
From a global perspective, the Big Flip is most advanced in the United States, due to a variety of well-established trends.
- Women are better-educated. Education is the single strongest predictor of lifetime earnings, and women are now the better-educated gender in America. Women earn the majority of associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorates. This holds true across all racial groups and all socioeconomic strata; in fact, the gender gap in education is widest at lower income levels.
- Women dominate the fastest-growing professions. Nine of the 10 job categories expected to grow the most through 2020 are dominated by women. Moreover, these sectors (education, healthcare, local government, etc.) are comparatively recession- proof, leaving women less vulnerable to cyclical ups and downs. Plus, women now occupy 51 percent of managerial and professional jobs in the United States.
- Women’s attitudes are changing. Young women today “want their own money,” Mundy writes. “They are acutely aware of the fragility of marriage and the danger of dependency. … They have seen what happened to their mothers, for whom the marriage contract hardly turned out to be insurance.”
Men’s attitudes are changing. While the decline in working men is due primarily to high unemployment rates, “a growing number of men no longer aspire to work at all,” Mundy writes in her book, “The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family”:
- Older men are choosing freedom. Many skilled workers who lost their jobs to outsourcing or the recession are unwilling to take jobs below their skill level. As one laid-off steelworker, 53, said, “I have come to realize that my free time is worth more to me.”
- Some younger men are choosing to focus on fatherhood rather than career. Since the 1970s, the number of stay-at-home dads in the United States has doubled to more than 500,000, or about 3.4 percent of American men (a conservative estimate that includes only full-time, non-working fathers).
- As Millennials move into family formation, this trend is likely to speed up. The share of men under 29 who say they want more responsibility in their jobs fell to 68 percent in 2008, down from 80 percent in 1992. And those who were fathers spent twice as much time with their kids — four hours per workday — than did young fathers in 1977, while the share who said their mate spent more time on childcare dropped to 46 percent, from 58 percent in 1992.
And, the wage gap is closing. Since women have historically earned less than men for the same work, will breadwomen be supporting their families on lower incomes than men have? Mundy argues no — because the gender wage-gap is shrinking.
In the United States, the ratio of women’s to men’s average earnings has steadily grown, from 62 percent in 1979 to 81 percent in 2010. Furthermore, the remaining gap lags a variety of important shifts, such as women’s surge into higher-paid professions, so it will shrink further as these changes take hold.
In fact, the wage gap is narrowest among younger workers (where women’s education gains are concentrated). In most US cities, the median income for childless single women in their 20s already exceeds that of their male peers — suggesting another reason the gap will narrow in coming years. Here’s why:
- Fewer men are working. Just 80 percent of American men work now, and only 66 percent of those in the prime working years of 25–64 work full-time. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2018, men’s workforce participation will fall to historic lows. This should serve to make women’s contribution to family or household income that much more important.
- Men are receiving less support for education. A 2011 survey by Pew found 40 percent of female college grads saying their parents paid for most of their undergrad education, versus just 29 percent of male grads. Social and familial support, too, is lower for men’s education, at least at blue-collar levels; in an Alaskan study of working-class families, 76 percent of girls but only 41 percent of boys said their parents encouraged them to go to college, and 18 percent of the boys were actually discouraged from going. Nationally, 77 percent of Americans now say that women need a college education in order to get ahead in life, but just 68 percent say this about men.
- Childcare decisions are being made pragmatically. Studies have found that in both heterosexual and same-sex couples, the mate who stays home with the children is usually the one with less education — suggesting that in many families, childcare decisions are being made based on earning potential rather than on gender.
Future In Focus: According to research from Pew, almost 40 percent of working wives in the United States are now “breadwomen” — and those numbers are from 2013, which might mean the numbers are even higher now. What’s driving that trend?
Andy Hines: Shifts in the economy and work have generally favored women. In the economy, starting with the industrial sector, factory work has declined, which has fallen disproportionately on men. The growth of the service economy has generally been better for women, such as personal care services. Also, women have caught up to and surpassed men in educational achievements, which has positioned them to succeed better in the today’s knowledge economy.
In how work is organized and carried out, there has been an ongoing shift from hierarchies to networks that has favored women. Masculine values are better suited to hierarchies and feminine values are better suited to networks.
So these two structural shifts have both favored women, and it’s showing up in the data. The challenge for many men has been — as is often the case with change and the future — that they have been unwilling to adapt to the changed circumstances of the future. Some of the changes have been a “raw deal” for men in the sense that “typically” male jobs have been hit the hardest by changes in the economy, for instance with manufacturing jobs declining from more than a third of the workforce to around just one-tenth of it today.
Future In Focus: As women continue to gain economic and political clout, what kind of advice do you have for businesses? And what are some of the legal/HR policies businesses may want to consider adopting and that we might see imposed by governments?
Andy Hines: Organizations ignore or overlook women at their own peril. In many cases, women are making inroads in organizations, but not making it up the ladder to the executive levels. Sometimes it’s the old boys network, or just plain inertia. And the barriers, whether intentional or not, are leading women to move on, and increasingly start their own business rather than deal with that foolishness.
I honestly wonder whether we will need regulatory intervention. In interviews we’ve done on the future of work, we’ve stressed the need for talent as the key driver for organizations. The organizations that get that will clearly see the great potential of women, and the organizations that don’t will struggle. It is a problem likely to correct itself over time. There are and will be leaders and laggards.
Future In Focus: How are women changing the organizational culture of many companies? What is different about their leadership styles, and the roles women are taking on?
Andy Hines: Women are more naturally inclined toward participatory approaches to leadership, which fits with the trend toward networked organizations and away from hierarchies. We are already seeing a greater reliance on teams — again, tending to favor women. We will see greater input from the entire organization, more crowdsourcing of ideas, more diverse voices, and ultimately this is likely to lead to more creative and innovative strategies.
Future In Focus: Do you think there’s anything unique about the role Millennial women have taken on in the workplace?
Andy Hines: Millennial women are probably the group to pay the closest attention to in order to understand the workforce of the future. They incorporate the Millennial desire to make a difference, with an insistence on greater work-life balance, and the ability to function well in teams and networks. Women have shown an entrepreneurial ability that suits their desire to fit work and “life” together in a more balanced fashion.
They are less interested in status and building an empire and more interested in making things happen. While women may be more inclined to succeed in this context, men can and do adapt to it as well. And many men have recognized the changing nature of work and are adapting quite well.
Future In Focus: Last, but not least, how does all of this impact men?
Andy Hines: It’s a huge generalization to say a lot of men have been asleep on the job, but it’s not unfair. We did a study on the future of men several years back for Spike TV, which identified the changes we’ve been talking about here, in the sense that many of the gains women have been making have been at the expense of men.
Some segments of men were adapting to the changes quite well, perhaps showing up most clearly in the evolution to more “equal” parenting roles. Others have resisted the changes in the economy and work that we discussed earlier, hoping for a return to what was for them the good old days, and thus they have been stuck. And most have been somewhere in between.