4 Trends That Changed The Role of Women at Work

Many employers still plan and manage recruitment, retention,
benefits, and work arrangements as if the typical American family still
lived in the 1960s like Rob and Laura Petrie. (For those of you too
young to remember, try googling “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”)

The demographic landscape of the United States, however, has changed
considerably since the one-career family was the norm. No change is as
dramatic as the changing role of women in the workplace.  And yet
despite the shift, many businesses continue to hang onto practices that
cater to the old-fashioned American ideal of a working husband and a
homemaker wife. (In fact, only 17% of U.S. households fit this
description, according to Labor Department data.)

Let’s take a look at four of the most significant trends that have
changed the role of women in the workplace and why employers must adapt.


Marriage has had a subtle yet dramatic impact on how employers recruit and retain employees.

Major changes have occurred in marriage and family formation patterns
over the past 50 years. The percentage of adults who are married
declined between 1970 and 2009, from 72 percent to 62 percent for women
and from 84 percent to 66 percent for men. In 2009, 15 percent of women
and 20 percent of men had never married, compared to 7 percent and 9
percent, respectively, in 1970.

When young adults married in their early teens and immediately
started a family, to paraphrase an old proverb, a job in hand was worth
two in the bush. A wife and child tethered the young worker to his
employer.  But today young single childless educated professionals have
choices – and no strings to keep them attached. They can choose where
they will live and work, especially if not bound by a mortgage.
in the employee engagement and retention analysis is the shifting
paradigm caused by delayed marriage. One size of benefits and policies
does not fit all ages.


Women of all ages currently have fewer children than they did in
1976. In 2008, about 18 percent of women age 40–44 (the latter part of
peak childbearing years) have never had a child, almost doubled that in
1976 (10 percent).
The typical age at which women have their first
child has been rising in recent decades. There has been a steep rise in
the share of women age 25–29 (early in their childbearing years) who
have not had a child, rising from 31 percent in 1976 to about 46 percent
in 2008. In other words, the likelihood of a woman having her first
child at age 30 or older increased roughly six-fold from about 4 percent
of all first-time mothers in the 1970s to 24 percent in 2007.

Women with more education are dramatically less likely to have had a
child than their less-educated counterparts. Specifically, among women
age 25–29 in 2008, only 19 percent of those with less than a high school
education had not had a child, compared to 31 percent of high school
graduates and 72 percent of those with at least a college degree.

For organizations that employ skilled and semi-skilled or
lower-skilled workers, recruitment and retention efforts must be
targeted to each demographic. 


Women now enroll in greater numbers than men in both undergraduate and graduate institutions.

Women age 25–34 are now more likely than men of that age group to
have attained a college degree, reversing the norm of 40 years ago. 
Among women age 25–64 in the labor force, 36 percent held college
degrees in 2009, compared to 11 percent in 1970. In contrast, the share
of men with a college degree increased by one-half. Over the same
period, the proportion of women workers with less than a high school
diploma fell from 34 percent to 7 percent. 

Women earned about 57 percent of all college degrees conferred in
2007–2008. By 2019, women are projected to account for nearly 60 percent
of total undergraduate enrollment.

Further, the number of females in graduate schools surpassed the
number of males in 1984. More recently, between 1997 and 2007, the
increase in female full-time graduate students was nearly double that of
males. In 1998, more doctoral degrees were conferred to men than to
women. A decade later, more doctoral degrees were conferred to women
than men. In 2008, women accounted for 59 percent of graduate school

The trend continues with re-training and enrollment in advanced
education. Higher percentages of women than men participate in adult

In 1970, only 8 percent of women and 14 percent of men were college
graduates.  Today, women have caught up with men in the percentage who
have at least a college degree, about 28 percent for each group in 2009

In 2008, for all race/ethnic subgroups, a higher percentage of
bachelor’s and master’s degrees were earned by women than men. For
non-Hispanic Black, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaskan
Native groups, more than 60 percent of bachelor’s and master’s degrees
were earned by women.

Labor Participation

The labor force participation rate for women—the percentage of all
adult women who are working or looking for work—rose steadily during the
latter half of the 20th century.

This rate increased from about 33 percent in 1950 to 61 percent in
1999. During the first decade of this century, it has held steady at
around 61 percent. In contrast, men’s labor force participation rate has
declined steadily since the 1950s.

As part of the overall growth of women’s presence in the labor force,
the participation rate of mothers also increased. From 1975 to 2000,
the labor force participation rate of mothers with children under age 18
rose from 47 percent to a peak of 73 percent.

The jobs working women perform also have changed as their market
activity has increased. A larger share of women now works in management,
professional, and related occupations. In 2009, women accounted for 51
percent of all persons employed in these occupations, somewhat more than
their share of total employment (47 percent). 

Since Individuals with higher levels of education generally have
better access to higher paying jobs than do individuals with less
education, women have been beating the pants off the men for the better

Demographic trends have in turn affected the age, sex, racial and
ethnic composition of the population, yet many organizations still view
talent management through a 1970 lens.  All these trends both affect—and
are affected by—economic growth and technological change. By ignoring
the changing demographics and role of women in the workplace, the
ability to grow a business and compete will be severely reduced without
creating a more women-friendly workplace.

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