In professions, Women Now a Majority," trumpeted the headline in The New York Times. "Women gain in top jobs, become 'new majority' in professions," announced USA Today. "I've been expecting it and it finally happened," said a friend calling on the phone to point out The Times piece. "You people have taken over." Well, this sounded like very good news indeed.
It also turned out to be much ado about something, but not very much.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps a monthly record of employed civilians by occupation, sex and age. It also keeps an annual record of these matters broken down to detailed occupations.
Its monthly figures for February occasioned the headlines. What the BLS reported was that 6,909,000 men 16 years of age and over were employed in professional categories that month and 6,938,000 women were. Or, put another way, 29,000 more women were employed in professional occupations than were men.
"That's not statistically significant," says Harvey Hamel, senior economist at the BLS. "Right now, there's no difference in the measures of female and male employment. Basically, you could say they're in equal proportions. You'd need at least in the neighborhood of 200,000 more for there to be a statistically significant difference. We really don't know whether the trend will continue."
What has happened, however, is that women have steadily increased their position within professional job categories from 45 percent in 1975 to about 50 percent today. But, Hamel points out, a look at the various job categories shows that there are enormous imbalances that remain.
Forty-four percent of all jobs are held by women, he says. "That's the norm, the standard. The average for 1985 for professionals was 49 percent. That's half." But only 11 percent of the architects are women and only 7 percent of engineers are women. "You go to teachers and you find the overwhelming majority -- 73 percent -- are women. Kindergarten teachers, 99 percent are women. Some of the lower paid occupations are predominantly women and many of the higher paid ones have very few women."
In 1985, 14.2 percent of all employed women were professionals, while only 11.6 of all employed men were professionals. Yet, female professionals earned only 71 percent of what male professionals earned. The reason for that, says Hamel, is that 64 percent of all female professionals in 1985 were employed either as teachers or "in the health assessment and treating occupations. Nurses, therapists and so on." Only 18 percent of male professionals were employed in those categories. "Both of those series of occupations are relatively low-paying," says Hamel.
There have, however, been some areas of progress,. In 1985, for example, 18.2 percent of the lawyers and judges were female, up from 7 percent in 1975. "That's quite a gain," says Hamel. Only one percent of the engineers were female in 1975; a decade later, that figure had soared to 6.7 percent. In 1975, 11.3 percent of the physicians were female, and a decade later 17.2 percent were.
"Jobs that require long years of school and training, there's still an underrepresentation of women by a large degree," says Hamel. "There are continuing gains, and each year there's a higher proportion of women that are professionals. But the fact that they've reached half of all professionals doesn't mean they've reached some level of equality. The mixture of professional jobs is quite different."
Women are showing a strong presence in some fields, however. More than half -- 51.7 percent -- of editors and reporters are women, as are 48 percent of authors. Half of the psychologists are female, and 42 percent of the social scientists and urban planners are women. Math anxiety notwithstanding, 31 percent of the mathematical and computer scientists are women.
Davis E. Bloom, a Harvard labor economist, told The New York Times the new data are "extremely significant." He said, "The lingering sexism that is present in the world of work today is not going to be able to persist when one-third or more of the lawyers, judges, doctors and architects are women."
Perhaps, but one thing simply doesn't change. In 1985, remember, female professionals earned 71 percent of what their male counterparts earned. The figure five years ago?