Navigating the changing social landscape

By John Langhorne/Consulting

When historians review the social changes in the United State at this end of this century, one of the top five probably will be the role of women.

In my own life, the three women dearest to me represent this change: My mother, wife and daughter. Each is a clear example of the social evolution of women.

My mother, who did not finish the third grade and worked as a housekeeper until she was 85, was completely dependent on my father. When he died, she didn’t know how to write a check and for the rest of her life signed as Mrs. Earl Langhorne.

My wife went to college when most women had only the career choice of nurse or teacher. The men earned bachelor of science and arts degrees and many women supposedly pursued marriage, or the “Mrs.” Degree (as many noted).

I recall very distinctly being in freshman physics, a lecture with 150 people, about three of whom were women and most of us thought, unfortunately, ‘what the h— are they doing here?’

My wife, who has worked in a professional role all of her life, may have made different career choices if a high school counselor, who pointed out she scored above the 95 percentile in mathematical ability, had suggested she take more mathematics. How many times has the story of teachers discouraging young women from “men’s occupations” played out? This is a story I hear often when I interview female managers of a certain age.

My daughter, who was successful through public school, (we often remind her what splendid parents she had), went on to two prestigious universities and now has a managerial position in a Fortune 500 company. She has had more jobs than I and has owned as many homes as her parents. She has traveled abroad more than her parents and now works in London. I have never had a conversation with her where she thought her career was being hindered by sexism, although she has on occasion noted some of her peers have experienced such discrimination. This is not an atypical story in families with daughters.

Consider these few statistics: in 2010, young women had a median income higher than their male peers, about 65 percent of students in university are women, women graduate college at rates much higher than men and at every demographic except the very top, women have lower unemployment rates than men.

When I began consulting, I routinely encountered examples of sexual harassment. I remember the unruly response of a group of machinists when I suggested to them that the Playboy foldouts had to go. I haven’t seen such behavior for years, although some argue compellingly that sexism and harassment have become subtler.

Colleagues also report this changes the workplace. A friend who is a research scientist in a large organization in Eastern Iowa, when asked how his job has changed in the past 30 years, reported when he attends research team meetings, about two thirds of the people at the table are women. When asked how this has changed the workplace, his answer was women are easier to work with in groups.

Much has been written about this dramatic acceleration of the upward economic mobility in women and its mirror decline in men. This is an area where much of the writing is polemical.

Perhaps the most compelling summary of this phenomenon was reported by the social psychologist Carol Travis, who in a book titled the “MisMeasurement of Women,” quoted “male supremacy is a phase in the evolution of culture that will end in the 21st century when women’s inability to control fertility and the need for men’s physical strength in work and war become unnecessary.” This effect began with the onset of the service economy after World War II and has accelerated as we move further into the information economy.

In the information economy, the typical worker usually has three characteristics: uses a computer in daily work, works in a team and is lightly supervised. The effects of this change, both positive and negative, are too numerous and far-reaching to cover in this column.

To read more about this subtle social landslide, which is not limited to the United States, try using the new Layar scanning system. I recommend the Wall Street Journal article, “Hymn of the Slacker Father;” at and the New York Times article, “End of Men” at http://nyti. ms/14s4vFE.