Women demolish more career barriers

From pulpits to judicial benches, influx of women transformed workplaces in the 1990s.

When Carin Smith entered Oregon State University in 1976, the school of veterinary medicine had only a handful of female students.

By 1980, when she joined that graduate program, she and other women made up half the vet school's entering class. Today, it's men who are becoming as quaint as James Herriot: They wield only one-fourth of the school's stethoscopes.

The shift in Oregon symbolizes a dramatic change in the gender makeup of some of the nation's most traditionally male-dominated professions.

From dentistry to Dodge sales, women are taking over more jobs once held almost exclusively by men - one of the last gender barriers in the American workplace.

True, many jobs remain male preserves. Fewer than 1 percent of the nation's pickling machine operators, stevedores, or movie projectionists, for instance, are women. Yet, in dozens of other fields, the numbers have changed dramatically, due to economic and social factors.

"We have always been applauding these [occupational] milestones for women," says Claudia Golden, a Harvard University economist in Cambridge, Mass. "When we stop applauding, we will know we have made it."

The ovations have, in fact, grown softer since the 1970s and 1980s, when many of the most blatant barriers to women were shoved aside.

But women continue to carve new career paths, building on those prior gains. Equal opportunity laws have opened doors, and a generation of girls has grown up being told by parents, "You can have any job you want."

Dr. Smith, now based in Leavenworth, Wash., who edits the Bulletin of the Association of Women Veterinarians, says she decided to become an animal doctor at age 5.

Now, women account for 43 percent of all practicing vets, up from just 2 percent in 1989.

In this field, even as women such as Smith were feeling freer to pursue a career that related to their love of animals, economic forces were also at work. Pay for vets was falling - prompting many men to seek other occupations.

Similar dynamics have transformed the gender makeup of other occupations.

From 1989 to 2001, women increased their representation in 106 of 497 occupations tracked by the US Labor Department, finds a new study by the Employment Policy Foundation, a Washington research group.

In addition to veterinarians, the fields where women's participation increased the most were:

* Top public administrators: Women's share rose from 4 percent to 37 percent.

* Industrial engineers (efficiency experts): from 6 percent to 22 percent.

* Members of the clergy: from 6 percent to 18 percent.

* Math and science teachers: up sixfold from a relatively small base. Chemistry teachers: up fourfold.

* Dentists: up fourfold.

* Car salespeople: up threefold.

Despite these statistics, Barbara Reskin, a Harvard University sociologist, believes the 1990s have been less a period of dramatic progress than a "solidification" of the "big leap" women made in the previous two decades in shrinking their occupational segregation.

Still, the shifts have come during a period when women's share of the overall labor force remained relatively flat: It rose from 57.4 percent of US workers in 1989 to 60.1 percent today. By contrast, in the 1970s and 80s the shape of the labor force was transformed by an influx of women.

Since then, in hundreds of occupations there has been little change in the gender ratio.

Indeed, women are still crowding, voluntarily or semi-voluntarily, into certain occupations they have dominated for many decades - sales workers, secretaries, cashiers, nurses, elementary school teachers, receptionists, hairdressers, and so on.

Just 20 occupations are home to almost half of all working women: nearly 30 million out of total 63 million women in the work force, according to the labor department. They account for 97 percent or more of all secretaries, receptionists, and registered nurses, for instance.

Few men enter these areas, often seeing such jobs as ones that would compromise their masculinity. One exception is flight attendants, where a lawsuit opened the door to men lured by the travel perks the job offers.

Lone female at a dotcom

But women are venturing more and more into "male turf."

When Vidya Sundaram last year joined Xtime, a start-up firm in San Mateo, Calif., that offers Internet-based software for scheduling appointments, she was the only woman among a dozen or so software engineers. In Silicon Valley, female programmers are almost rare.

The young Stanford University graduate figures her arrival at Xtime brought a certain civilizing influence.

"It is a good balance to have a mix of men and women. It makes for a healthy work environment. It is pretty unhealthy if it's all men. I'm more open than the men."

After a few months on the job, Ms. Sundaram started "making noises about wanting a sister" on the job. Management heeded her request, hiring a former colleague from a failed dotcom.

Sundaram says the team of software engineers works closely together, and "it doesn't faze me that people are sometimes working 20-hour days."

For some women, especially those with children, long hours are an issue - causing them to avoid certain occupations.

Pay gap persists

This is also regarded as one reason why full-time working women get paid, on average, about 72.2 percent of men's annual earnings. Women often take on greater, more time-consuming family responsibilities than men. On average, they work 92 percent of the hours of men.

Women physicians who are unmarried and have no children, for instance, earn 13 percent more per year than those who are married and 15 percent more than those with children, according to a study by Alicia Sasser, a Harvard economist. She attributes the difference to "time constraints imposed by work norms and family responsibilities."

In many industries, gender shifts have stemmed in part from changes in the supply of skilled laborers.

Women were able to move into accounting in greater numbers as the supply of men became exhausted.

Women like Sundaram are starting to find jobs in high-tech areas as more of them take computer science courses and other engineering courses in college.

"There continue to be some barriers to e-commerce occupations," says Harvard Professor Reskin. Many people get these jobs through networking, for example, and women have fewer connections to tap.

In the blue-collar area, women didn't advance far in the 1990s. One reason may be that the number of jobs in the crafts and in manufacturing have been declining as productivity rises and jobs are shifted abroad.

Men still hold the vast majority of the least-desirable or most-dangerous jobs, such as loggers and miners. That's reflected in accident statistics. Thirteen men die on the job for every woman.

New law-school majority

In many professions, women are climbing fast, reflecting their increased education as well as the law banning gender discrimination. Today the majority of bachelor's degrees, and 40 percent of doctorates, go to women.

"The professions in general have been blown wide open," says Harvard's Professor Golden.

In law, for example, women now account for almost one-third of the nation's lawyers, as well as the majority of entering law students. Over the past dozen years, the number of women law partners, general counsels, and federal judges has doubled.

But an American Bar Association commission acknowledges: "Women in the legal profession remain underrepresented in positions of greatest status, influence, and economic reward. They account for only about 15 percent of federal judges and law firm partners, 10 percent of law school deans and general counsels, and 5 percent of managing partners of large firms."

Women lawyers are often at nonprofits, government agencies, or smaller law firms, where they can better manage their hours.

A somewhat similar story could be told for other professions. Women constitute more than 40 percent of medical-school entrants. But highly paid surgeons and orthopedists tend to be men. More and more primary-care physicians are women.

Women make up 66 percent of public relations specialists, up from 27 percent in 1970. More and more women are becoming bank branch managers.

In many newspapers, women journalists outnumber or almost outnumber men. But men tend to hold the most prestigious posts.

Rising entrepreneurs

More women are studying management, entering business, or starting their own businesses. Women are starting businesses at twice the rate of men, about half in the service sector and 19 percent in the retail area. Some 8.5 million women-owned businesses employ 24 million people.

One reason some women go into business for themselves: They figure that rising to the top in corporations is difficult.

"The overt kinds of discrimination have been taken care of," but the more subtle ones have not, says Debra Kolb, a professor of management at Simmons College in Boston.

One example may be the assumption that the attributes required for leadership are more male than female. Ms. Kolb says such bias often makes it hard for women to move up the corporate ladder.

Others say many women voluntarily opt off the fast track. Rather, in seeking time to raise a family, they choose flexibility, a friendly workplace environment, and other nonmonetary factors, argue Diana Furchtgott-Roth, now chief of staff at the Council of Economic Advisers, and Christine Stolba, at the American Enterprise Institute.

In Silicon Valley, Sonja Hoel is one of perhaps three women who have become a partner in one of the top 10 venture-capital firms there.

That job puts her on the executive board of seven firms - the only woman on each of those boards. "Being a woman," she says, "is only a handicap if you make it so."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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