Something truly extraordinary is happening in the US labour market. At the beginning of 2010, it was revealed, that for the first time in the country’s history, women held a majority of the nation’s jobs. The dramatic rise of women within the ranks of the gainfully employed shouldn’t be seen as solely an American phenomenon. In fact, similar processes are evident throughout the developing world, including in France, Korea, India, China, Iceland and the UK. In modern, post-industrial economies and societies, women are not merely playing catch-up, but in many ways would seem to be actually forging steadily ahead.
In part, the gender employment shift in the US came about because around three out of four of some eight million who lost their jobs during the 2008 recession were men. This in turn was due to the most hard-hit sectors being those of manufacturing and construction, which remain very much male-dominated. Even so, the recession did no more than speed up a process that has been underway for a long time. America, like much of the developed world, has been steadily becoming a post-industrial society, in which service industries and the professions have come to eclipse traditional production-centred economies.
In the growing “nurturing professions”, including nursing, home health assistance and child care, women are, as one would expect, dominant. What one would not expect is the extent to which they are beginning to dominate middle management and even a widening array of the professions. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows women to now be holding just under 52% of managerial and professional jobs (more than double the percentage in 1980), including 54% of accountants and around half of banking and insurance jobs. Major gains have also been made in law and medicine as well, professions that were once almost completely male dominated. About one in three physicians and just under half of associates in law firms are now women, and those percentages are continuing to rise fast.
Whereas women are becoming ever more adept at doing what was once considered to be “men’s work”, the opposite is not true. Theoretically, there is no reason why more men should in turn start moving more into traditional areas of female dominance like nursing, school teaching, home maintenance, secretarial work, child care and the like. In practice, though, this is not happening. Men have been noticeably slow to adapt to the changing dynamics of the workplace. In Jessica Grose’s phrase, they seem “fixed in cultural aspic” (see her “Omega Males and the Women Who Hate Them” — the subtitle reads: “They’re unemployed, romantically challenged, and they’re everywhere”, Slate magazine).
A key reason why women are doing so well is because they are now doing so much better in the higher education fields. Today, the proportion of women to men in the US obtaining bachelor and master’s degrees is close to 60:40. This makes a crucial difference in an economy where those with only a high school diploma are at a significant disadvantage when competing for positions. In addition, their grades are significantly higher. As the title of a 2006 New York Times article put it, “at colleges, women are leaving men in the dust”. Again, this is not just happening in the US. For example, women now make up 58% of admissions in the UK, over 60% in Canada and, amazingly enough, about 60% in Iran. In India, women are learning English much faster than men to meet the demands of new global call centres.
Thus far, all I’ve done is present a bare summary of what I’ve been reading on this subject (an article I particularly recommend is Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men” in the July-August 2010 issue of Atlantic magazine). It is certainly not an area in which I have any expertise, so please forgive me this somewhat breathless rehashing of contemporary statistics. I do believe, though, that what we are seeing here is a momentous revolution that has in many ways caught the majority of us unawares.
No doubt many of you will be familiar with the TV period drama Mad Men, which centres on the goings on in an upmarket New York advertising agency at the start of the 1960s. What is perhaps the most striking feature of the series is how stark the divide is between the male and the female employees. The men hold all the senior positions, earn large salaries, make all the strategic and creative decisions and are driven and competitive. The women are all in junior clerical positions, earn very little, are consistently deferential and submissive and have no professional aspirations of their own. Their only competitiveness involves trying to snare a husband. Sexist behaviour is naturally rampant, with predatory males pretty much insulting and exploiting the females at will. So far removed is the whole set-up from today’s workplace conditions that Mad Men sometimes looks less like a period drama than like a futuristic sci-fi fantasy scenario. Could such grotesque gender imbalances really have existed?
I have more questions than insights into all of this. Is this time of feminine resurgence unique in history? It would certainly seem so. Even more interestingly, what is the reason for this evident demoralisation of the male of the species? All that predatory, confident male drive seems to be withering away. I also wonder how many, if any, feminist activists of bygone times really believed that one day women would attain not merely equality but would in many ways start to actually forge ahead.
One final issue is what impact this rapid rise of women in the job market is having, and will have, on marriage and child-rearing. Perhaps inevitably, both areas are suffering significant attrition. In a Jane Austen novel, marriage for a woman is an economic necessity, given the almost total lack of bread-winning opportunities available to them.
Today, women are as able as men to support themselves, and are even to a growing extent coming to regard a husband as a proverbial ball and chain, since he often will be earning less or even be unemployed. As for children, these are inevitably regarded as an obstacle to advancement, especially in the crucial early years of building a career. The result is that women are marrying much later, when they marry at all, have fewer children, if they choose to have any at all and even if they do have them quite late in life.
As for men, dispirited and intimidated by the female career surge and deprived of their traditional ego-boosting roles as the main breadwinners, there is even less of an incentive to subject themselves to the rigors of marriage and child-raising. The long-term consequences of this alone on modern Western society are as unpredictable as they are likely to be colossal.
For more insightful insights on all of this, I recommend for a start having a look through back issues of the excellent Atlantic magazine, in which American women grapple with the multiple implications of what their sex has been so spectacularly achieving in recent years.