For a while last year — and for the first time in history — women outnumbered men in America's workforce.
Much of the shift could be attributed to the struggling economy. Manufacturing, trade and construction jobs, traditionally dominated by men, were the hardest hit by layoffs. In summer 2009, the left-leaning Center for American Progress noted that men accounted for three of every four jobs lost to the recession.
But economic conditions weren't the only explanation.
In July, The Atlantic magazine took a comprehensive look at the feminization of labor. The magazine noted that women held 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs, outpaced men in colleges and universities and are expected to exceed men in 13 of 15 projected growth industries.
“What if,” writer Hanna Rosin asked, “the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than it is to men?”
There's evidence to support that notion.
Since the early 1990s, women have outnumbered men in American universities. The American Council on Education shows that, on a national level, women currently account for 57 percent of college enrollments.
The most recent Oklahoma data shows similar enrollment figures: 56 percent women, 44 percent men.
Women earn more master's degrees and as many professional and doctoral degrees as men. They are increasing their numbers in traditionally male degree programs, such as engineering and business administration.
“Women now have virtually all careers available to them,” said Houston Davis, vice chancellor for academic affairs for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.
“If you look back 30 to 40 years ago, there were a number of degree programs in which you could not find women at all. As those barriers have broken, women are flooding into those opportunities and seeking careers that they were previously denied.”
Men still enroll in college, of course.
“Our numbers show there are more males enrolled now than there were 20 years ago,” Davis said, “but their overall share of the pie has shrunk.”
Men opt out of college for a variety of reasons. Many postpone higher education for immediate employment in the military or in jobs that involve physical labor, such as construction or roofing.
“The problem with that is we know that for every year a person decides to lay out or not go into college, the more unlikely it is that they'll come back,” Davis said.
The numbers bear that out.
Men ages 25 and older comprise just 14 percent of all undergraduate students, according to the Council on Higher Education. Women in that age group outnumber men two to one.
Transforming the workplace
Corporate strategies have changed in recent years, perhaps because women have gained more prominence. Militaristic bosses — characteristically men — are being replaced by managers who listen more and bark less.
“There's a premium on democratic leadership, coaching and teaching,” said Cindy Rosenthal, a University of Oklahoma professor who studies women and politics. “Women are better at leading that way rather than in an autocratic environment.”
That isn't to say that women aren't decisive bosses. Alice Eagly and Linda Carli argue in their 2007 book, “Through the Labyrinth,” that female leaders are equally as effective as men.
“They (the authors) review a lot of the literature and data on managerial skills,” Rosenthal said, “and to the extent that jobs have a strong emphasis on interpersonal skills and not just technical tasks, women tend to do better.”
In other words, women generally excel at skills valued in contemporary offices: collaboration, communication and compromise, among others.
Women are bringing those skills to the labor force at an unprecedented rate. In the past 25 years, the number of working women has increased by 44.2 percent, according to the “Women and the Economy 2010” report by the U.S. Joint Economic Committee. That's 20 million more female workers, with three out of four of them holding full-time jobs.