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Do Women Really ‘Hold the Cards’ in Our Modern Economy?

You may have read a controversial and thought-provoking article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic magazine called “The End of Men.” The article poses the following question: “What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men?” After all, as author Hanna Rosin points out, many more men than women lost their jobs during the recent recession, women now make up the majority of the U.S. workforce, most of the job categories that are expected to grow in the next decade are dominated by women, and women are obtaining more B.A. degrees than men. Ms. Rosin believes that all of these developments suggest that “the modern economy is becoming a place where women hold the cards.”

But is the picture really that rosy for women?

Although more women than men are in the workforce, it is of note that the percentage of women in senior executive and board positions is low and has remained stagnant. According the “2009 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Board Directors,” women held only 15.2 percent of board of director seats at Fortune 500 companies in 2009—the same percentage as the prior year. Also, according to the “2009 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Executive Officers and Top Earners,” women held 13.5 percent of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies in 2009 and just 6.3 percent of top-earner positions.

In her article, Ms. Rosin concedes that “prominent female CEOs, past and present, are so rare that they count as minor celebrities.” The only bright side—which offers little consolation—is that female CEOs tend to earn more than their male counterparts and get bigger raises. Ms. Rosin doesn’t even mention that few women are being appointed to board seats or adequately confront the existence of the significant wage disparity in the workforce between men and women, CEO positions notwithstanding.

Is the fact that women have overtaken men in the workplace really just an unfortunate reality that women are simply less expensive to employ then men? As the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recently pointed out, “In 2009, women who were full-time wage and salary workers had median weekly earnings that were about 80 percent of the earnings of their male counterparts.” While the wage gap was not as wide among younger workers, women who were 35 years and older earned “roughly three-fourths as much as their male counterparts” last year. (See the BLS’ report on women’s earnings in 2009.)

Perhaps it may be premature to declare, as Ms. Rosin believes, that the economy is becoming “more congenial to women” and “a place where women hold the cards.”