When we look at the facts and figures it seems clear that women are not just transforming the workplace, they are transforming the entire country. The recent Shriver Report indicates that for the first time, half of US workers are female – and in 40% of American families those women are the primary breadwinners.
With more and more men forced to stay home, more and more women are bringing home the bacon. Women are more likely than ever to head their own families. They’re doing it all—and many of them have to do it all. When they work, it’s no longer just for “the little extras.” Their income puts food on the table and a roof over their heads, just like men’s income always did.
Even a quick glance at the Shriver Report signals the widespread changes that have occurred in just a generation. Between 1975 and 2008, the “traditional” family structure (a working husband only) has more than halved, from 52% to 21%. This has impacted families and women in particular in a myriad of ways – generating political, policy and organizational challenges around flexible working hours, child care, opportunity, equal pay and family care. At the same time, it is clear that women are reaping the benefits of education – women now receive 62% of college associate’s degrees, 57% of bachelor’s degrees, 60% of all masters degrees, half of all professional degrees and just under 50% of all PhDs – a stunning turnaround since 1970, especially at the upper end where women received fewer than 10% of professional and doctoral degrees.
Yet despite these indicators, and despite the fact that we have women in the high ranking public positions of Secretary of State and Speaker of the House, it seems that appearances are, in fact, deceiving. In her New York Times article, The Mismeasure of Women, Joanne Lipman suggests, “… Somewhere along the line, especially in recent years, progress for women has stalled. And attitudes have taken a giant leap backward.”
Rather than focusing only on the statistics – on the numbers, the gains, the incremental improvements, we need to look, as Joanne Lipman suggests, to changes in perception, alterations in behavior and how this creates the conditions for a change in the way this nation thinks of, and engages, its women citizenry. We need to take the same approach within our organizations – looking at what Jo Miller calls the “shadow organization” – the networks of relationships that hold and carry influence, and create action across the enterprise regardless of hierarchy – and actively put in place plans to promote our achievements and influence the way that they are perceived and even valued.
For sure, we have made progress, but better jobs, more pay and greater opportunity is one thing. Respect is another. Our challenge as leaders is to shift the conversation around the topic of women. After all, if you want profits, you have to smash the glass ceiling. It’s time to put the numbers to work – our numbers, the numbers that lie behind Maria Shriver’s report – and we’ll all be better off for it.
Nina Nets It Out: Women have made significant gains in the last 30-40 years. But for all the statistics, there are still inequalities – cultural inequalities which threaten to undo the good work of a generation. Leaders, as the custodians of organizational culture, have an important part to play in transforming both the perception and reality of women in business.