The glass ceiling has been shattered. Now society must pick up the pace to accommodate the needs of the changing family and workplace.
Today, half of all workers in the U.S. are women. For the first time, a woman is the primary or co-breadwinner in two-thirds of American families. More women also are single, and their collective power and shifting needs are affecting every institution in American life, according to the Shriver Report, a sweeping study by the liberal Center for American Progress, which looks at changing roles affecting workers and their families.
It contends that many institutions, including government, business, faith and education, haven't kept pace as family demographics have become more complex.
"Basic labor standards and the social insurance system are based on supporting 'traditional' families, in which the husband works and the wife stays home to care for children," said the comprehensive study led by former journalist and California first lady Maria Shriver.
Its researchers seek an updated national conversation that addresses new needs related to day care, eldercare, equitable pay, family leave and job demands.
"We've come a long way, but not far enough," said Ann O'Leary, the study's co-author, who is a senior fellow at CAP and executive director of the Berkeley Center for Health, Economic & Family Security at the University of California Berkeley School of Law.
Miss O'Leary called on government and businesses to step up and help workers through updated labor standards and laws that are comprehensive enough to meet the emerging needs of both men and women.
The study included a poll that provided insights on the perceptions of men and women and work life along with statistics on the changing nature of families.
Among the poll's key findings:
• 70 percent of men are comfortable with women working outside the home.
• 80 percent of men and women agree that businesses that fail to adapt to the needs of modern families risk losing good workers.
• 40 percent of children born in 2007 - more than 1.5 million children - had mothers who were unmarried.
• 63 percent of men reported they were less interested than in years past in playing what was described as a "macho" role.
• Men have lost seven of every 10 jobs lost in the recession.
• Women earn half of all graduate degrees and are now more likely than men to graduate from college. Women run more than 10 million businesses, with annual sales of $1.1 trillion, and make 80 percent of all consumer buying decisions.
• Women earn 77 cents on the dollar, compared with the wages earned by men. Just 15 Fortune 500 companies were headed by women in July 2008.
• Close to 86 percent of women agreed that women today are primarily responsible for the care of their aging parents.
• 85 percent of women in families in which both partners had jobs said they think the woman has more responsibility for taking care of the family and home.
"Our women and families are facing tough times. But this government is on your side," said U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, acknowledging the impact of the recession in a keynote speech Monday to kick off the release of the Shriver Report. She called the study long overdue.
"Women do make a difference, whether we're leading as Cabinet heads, in our homes, or as caretakers for our families. We all play a very significant role in our recovery," she said.
Mrs. Solis touted opportunities in the emerging "green" economy for women and called for improvements in math and science education, along with job training that will give them access to better jobs in growing fields.
"We need to make sure all our sisters and daughters in the women's nation are included in the green revolution," she said.
Carrie L. Lukas, vice president for policy and economics at the Independent Women's Forum in Washington, said she applauds the Shriver research for increasing dialogue on workplace issues and family needs.
She understands the need for flexibility and said her job allows her to telecommute from Vienna, Austria, where her husband works in the Foreign Service. This lets the Harvard and Princeton grad be an involved mother to her three children, ages 4, 2 and six months, and satisfies her need for a professional career.
"I think there are more and more women who have the opportunity to both work and spend a lot of time with their children," Mrs. Lukas said, calling herself "blessed."
But she cautioned that today's women need to be realistic "to some of the trade-offs and inevitabilities that they will always face."
"There is no perfect solution to this whole idea of balancing family and work life, and I don't see it going away. While certainly being a good worker and a good parent are not mutually exclusive roles, there are only 24 hours in a day. There are going to be trade-offs, and women are going to feel that in different ways."
Peter Berg, a labor and industrial relations professor at Michigan State University, said the dominance of women in the work force, as laid out in the Shriver study, has broad implications for the nation.
"Half the labor force means that what happens in the workplace ripples back into society," he said, noting that if women can't have flexibility, it affects things such as birthrates and well-baby care.
"I'm not sure employers are really seeing their role in the larger societal issues that these changes in the labor force have brought," he said. "I think businesses are focused on their need to get workers, but are less sensitive to the needs of society as a whole and the implications of that. I think they will be forced to, but probably through policy."
Mrs. Lukas said society should tear down social barriers that prevent people from helping and supporting children, but she also said she's worried when some discuss broader government control as a way to make changes happen.
"It worries me when we talk about things like suing government to do this, because we have to recognize when it comes to government-mandated benefits, where demanding we all have flextime or paid leave, that comes as a real cost, and those costs can often be fewer job opportunities, less wages and, even for women, in some cases, less flexibility," she said.
"I think government intervention is tempting to solve these problems, but we need to recognize that there are a lot of unintended consequences in these measures."
Heather Boushey, a senior economist at CAP, acknowledged that the demographic shifts are "not a short-term blip," but a new reality that must be dealt with.
"Women won't go back home," she said. "This is a permanent change in our economy, and we need to push the institutions around us to adapt to it."