The new professional majority

THE United States quietly passed a milestone last month: Women took a solid lead over men in filling the jobs classified as ``professional.'' This change is likely to have subtle but wide-ranging effects throughout society, in everything from the national health-care system to the earning patterns of families.

A little perspective is needed first, though. A large share of professional women in the country are in two fields traditionally dominated by women -- nursing and teaching. And men continue to predominate in traditionally male fields: engineering, law, medicine.

Moreover, millions of women remain clustered in certain female-dominated nonprofessional positions, in which their large numbers and employers' unwillingness to pay much for ``women's work'' condemn them to low earnings.

And sad to say, some fear that ``feminization'' of certain professions may result in the long-term downgrading of the status and earning power of those professions, rather than the upgrading of the women in them. Among the fields where women now predominate over men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are reporting and editing -- neither tracks to instant riches.

But this is not to belittle the gains women have made in entering high-paying, high-prestige fields. For example, the BLS estimates that 18.1 percent of today's lawyers are women, as against 15.3 percent in 1983.

The BLS distinguishes between professional jobs on one hand, and on the other, executive, managerial, and administrative jobs, of which women held 36 percent last year. The distinction is worth noting, and the difference in women's penetration of the two kinds of fields should not be surprising. The professions have over time been open to various ``newcomers'' (the Irish, Jews, blacks) in a way that corporate jobs, with their more Byzantine ``networks'' have not.

Given the importance of female earning power in supporting the nation's families, to say nothing of women's own fair aspirations, this move into the professions is surely good news. And as women move into new fields, there is hope that workplaces may evolve toward more supportiveness of both men and women in their multiple roles at work and at home.

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