Women and the Workforce. What Have We Really Done?

"We Did It!" is the cover story of the January 2nd issue of The Economist. The cover features a photo of a popular World War II-era poster with an image of a "working woman" flexing her arm. (I think of "Rosie the Riveter," but according to Wikipedia, J. Howard Miller's "We Can Do It!" is commonly mistaken for Rosie.) The Second World War was indeed a significant marker in terms of the number of women entering the U.S. job market, and the contributions that were made to business and industry by women were unprecedented at the time. But how far have we come since then?

The issue features three write-ups on the affect of women on the world's workforce (women currently comprise or are quickly approaching half the workforce in the U.S. and much of Europe). In "Briefing,"the author concludes that "the landmark book in the rise of feminism was arguably not Ms. Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, but Daniel Bell's The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society. In an industrial economy, it's argued that men have natural physical advantages. But in a knowledge or service economy, those advantages dissipate. The current "mancession" seems to illustrate the point. In the U.S., the female unemployment rate is approximately 8.5%, compared to approximately 11% for men

The article discusses the past and present challenges that woman face in the workforce, from overt sexism (as seen today in AMC's Mad Men), to overcoming leadership opportunity barriers and balancing family responsibilities with career aspirations.

But there are signs that these trends are reversing in the Western world, and countries that don't adjust will be at a competitive disadvantage by neglecting this potential talent pool. The article cites a projection that "by 2011 there will be 2.6 million more women than men studying in American universities." That's a potent projection for the future of knowledge economies.

While these articles do a wonderful job of highlighting the issues and exploring how different countries are approaching the challenge, a major implication was not addresses. The impact of higher education costs to the workforce realties.

According to College Board, the tuition for a four-year public institution runs roughly $30,000 and more than $100,000 for private schools. This does not include the costs of books, housing and other expenses.

Currently, I'm scheduled to pay-off my student loans for two advance degrees when my one-year-old son is in his mid-20s. While I love my son more than anything, dedicating myself exclusively to him and not working is not fiscally feasible. Luckily, I have a career that offers flexibility, a supportive family and progressive employer. This helps to balance my competing obligations. But even with all of those advantages, it is challenging! More challenging than I imagined (see baby blogs 1 and 2).

So, how is this feminist forecast a productivity issue? In era of recession and recovery, employee engagement is a top priority for high-performing organizations. Employers who recognize their employees' personal needs with Employee Assistance Programs gain not just a great deal of loyalty, but also increase productivity. Here are a few family and working mom friendly programs that organization may want to consider offering all employees to enable them to bring their best self to work:

  • Subsidized or on-site financial planning
  • Subsidized or on-site fitness programs
  • On-site health fairs
  • Child/Eldercare support
  • Affinity Groups for working parents

Recognizing today's trends is the best way to plan for future success.

What's your organization doing to promote a family-friendly environment for working mothers?