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The Changing Face of the US Workforce

April 06, 2010 07:00 AM
by Colleen Brondou
For the first time ever, there are more women than men employed in the United States, and some traditionally male-dominated professions are now dominated by women.

Line Blurs Between Male- and Female-Dominated Professions

Back in September 2009, Dennis Cauchon reported for USA Today that women were “on the verge of outnumbering men in the workforce for the first time, a historic reversal.” A dramatic change in women’s roles coupled with astronomical job losses for men due to the recession were cited as reasons for the employment transformation.

While there are more women in the workforce than ever before, professions that have been historically male-dominated are also seeing a huge increase in the number of female workers. In some cases, the increase of women in these fields has been enough to shift the profession from male- to female-dominated.

In 2009, for example, the once male-dominated profession of veterinary medicine saw an increase of women—enough to outnumber men. According to figures released by the American Veterinary Medical Association, quoted by Patricia Montemurri in the Detroit Free Press, “women lead men, 44,802 to 43,196, in the field.” In 2008, women outnumbered men in the pharmacy profession, and about 70 percent of recent optometry graduates are women.

Background: Women in the workforce

Perhaps one of the biggest changes in women’s roles and the American workforce took place during World War II. With thousands of men off at war, women were needed to fill professional positions previously denied them, such as working as engineers and manufacturers to support the war effort.

Another shift in the U.S. workforce emerged in the early 1980s. In a 1982 article for The New York Times News Service, Frank J. Prial wrote that despite the unemployment rate, “the number of women working … has risen 21 million, or 95 percent … and many of the jobs they have taken are in categories once largely the province of men.”

Prial also explained that according to U.S. Labor Department statistics, women had overtaken men in six major job categories: bill collectors, real estate agents and brokers, insurance adjusters, examiners and investigators, photographic process workers, production-line assemblers, and checkers, examiners and inspectors.

“The statistics only tell what has already happened,” Samuel Ehrenhalt, commissioner of labor statistics for the middle Atlantic region, was quoted as saying by Prial. “They don’t even mention what’s in the pipeline. When the women who are now in school join the work force, these figures will change even more dramatically.”

Ehrenhalt was right on target. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) looked at occupations that were 95 percent male-dominated in 1983 and how many women had entered these occupations by 2002. Robert Longley, writing for in 2005, reported that auto body and repair mechanics “had the greatest shift” with a 369 percent increase of women. Other occupations that saw a huge influx of women included police detectives, civil engineers, millwrights, firefighters, and airplane pilots and navigators.

Related Topic: A female-dominated profession goes male

It may come as a shock, but according to Jane Peyton, an author who “has conducted extensive research into the origins of beer,” women used to dominate the profession of beer brewing, Nick Britten reported for the Daily Telegraph.

“Nearly 7,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and Sumeria, so important were their skills that they were the only ones allowed to brew the drink or run any taverns,” Britten writes. Peyton also looked at the Vikings, Norse society, ancient Finland and England, and found that across the board, women were responsible for brewing beer and selling it.

New methods of brewing beer during the late 18th century and the Industrial Revolution “meant women’s contribution slowly started to decline and be forgotten,” according to Britten. Today, beer is marketed almost exclusively toward men and men dominate the beer brewing industry.

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