Women and the Knowledge-Work Trend

The news this month that women now outnumber men on the nation's payrolls generated less heat than a burning bra.

Relatively few major media outlets took note of the milestone, which was tucked amid the Labor Dept.'s employment report for January. And some of the analysts who did bother to pay attention pointed out that it wasn't based on the government's most reliable or robust set of statistics. Others focused on the fact that women reached this mark only because men have been losing jobs faster than their female counterparts during the economic downturn.

But Peter Drucker, I believe, would have viewed the figure—that women held 50.3% of the nation's nonfarm payroll jobs last month, according to seasonally unadjusted data—with a strong appreciation for both its historic import and for the kinds of changes it portends across the corporate world.

Indeed, in Drucker's eyes, the number would surely serve as the latest evidence of the momentous movement to the kinds of jobs—ones in which brains beat brawn—that have dramatically altered the traditional relationship between the sexes.

"Equally Accessible" Jobs

For centuries, Drucker explained in his 1995 book, Managing in a Time of Great Change, "men and women did the same work only when it was menial. Men and women both dug ditches. …Men and women both picked cotton in the fields.

"But any work involving skill, and any work conferring social status or providing income above minimum subsistence, was segregated by sex," Drucker continued. Telephone operators were almost universally women, for example, while telephone installers were practically all men.

Knowledge work, however, is different. Such occupations—which Drucker first identified in the late 1950s and now, according to various estimates, account for anywhere from a quarter to a half of all jobs in this country—are "equally accessible to both sexes," as Drucker put it.

"The higher up the ladder we go in knowledge work, the more likely it is that men and women are doing the same work," Drucker wrote. "Being a secretary in an American bank still means being a woman, but a vice president in the same bank may be a man or a woman."

This unprecedented flow of women into the same lines of work as men shows no signs of abating, either. If anything, it is poised to accelerate, given that women now earn about 60% of the university degrees awarded in the U.S.

Manager Material

For companies—more and more of which are finding that knowledge has replaced land, labor, and capital as "the one critical factor of production," in Drucker's words—this trend represents a tremendous opportunity.

Generalizing about any group of people is boneheaded and bound to get you into trouble; and when you're talking about half the human species, you're certain to find countless exceptions to any rule you come up with.

Nonetheless, a host of compelling studies—by researchers at INSEAD, McKinsey & Co., and elsewhere—suggest that women outshine men when it comes to team building, displaying emotional intelligence, setting clear expectations, and exhibiting other traits often associated with effective knowledge work. Having cited some of these findings at a conference last year, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of the Paris-based consultancy 20-First, couldn't help but ask: "Are women the managers Drucker was waiting for?"

Drucker himself seemed to think so. Many of today's jobs, he told an audience in 1986, depend on a person's "willingness to work with other people." Then Drucker added, "Let's face it, women are usually better at that than men."

Corporate Attitude Shift

Yet to fully capitalize, many corporations have to overhaul the way they approach women as workers. This goes beyond simply promoting more women to top corporate jobs and board positions, or closing the still-yawning wage gap between male and female employees, or offering a more flexible, family-friendly environment—though all of these things are terribly necessary.

For many organizations, taking advantage of this rich talent pool will depend on a fundamental shift in attitude—the realization that men and women tend to have different strengths and that the smartest strategy is to achieve a balance among them.

"Many employers have long believed that the best way to integrate women is to treat everyone in the same way," Wittenberg-Cox writes in her book Why Women Mean Business, co-authored with Alison Maitland. "This approach was reinforced over decades by equal-opportunity legislation and by women themselves demanding equal treatment. The only problem was that in pursuing fairness and equality, companies resolutely ignored differences between women and the male employees on whom they had previously relied. They dealt with the arrival of women en masse by requiring them to fit in—and to adapt to male career models and leadership styles."

Wittenberg-Cox counsels executives to become "gender-bilingual"—that is, "fluent in the language and culture of both men and women" so that they can get the best out of both.

A final point (for the record): Feminists didn't actually burn their bras in the 1960s; that's a myth. But the need for companies to recognize, as Drucker did, that "knowledge is gender-neutral" without homogenizing men and women in the workplace couldn't be more real.

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