The tipping point came last year. For the first time ever, women made up the majority of the workforce – across the country and in Minnesota.

Mired in the worst recession since the Great Depression, men lost huge numbers of jobs, most notably in such male-dominated industries as construction and manufacturing. But jobs in traditionally female-dominated industries like health care and education saw much smaller losses. Of the 15 categories of growing jobs nationwide, 13 are dominated by women.

The changing work environment has been called the “she-conomy” by Time Magazine, the “man-cession” by Newsweek and “The End of Men” by The Atlantic. Experts say that two years of severe, mostly male job losses, combined with a post-industrial economy that favors communication and management skills over labor, has tipped the balance in job numbers to women.

Women in Minnesota have fared particularly well. Their workforce participation – 67.4 percent – was almost 10 percent higher than the national average as of 2009. Four out of every 10 working mothers in the state are the primary breadwinners for their families. And they are becoming better educated. Nearly 70 percent of the graduate students in Minnesota are women.

The gains in the labor force and education would seem to mark a striking economic and cultural shift in a country in which men have always dominated. But has that shift been over-hyped? Some evidence suggests it has.

Women participation in workforce higher than national average

Women participation in workforce higher than national averageSources: National Bureau of Labor Statistics, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic DevelopmentNote: The column on the left refers to the percentage of the women in the workforce.

For virtually every statistic suggesting that women are gaining influence, other facts suggest such gains remain incremental and that men will rebound with the economy. Meanwhile, women still struggle with many of the same old challenges – a severe wage gap, tension between work and family responsibilities, and a glass ceiling keeping them from the highest-level jobs.

In Minnesota, women earn about 22 percent less than men, and the gap increases as they have more children. Only four women are among the 100 highest paid executives. The number of pregnancy-related discrimination cases doubled from 2000 to 2009.

For women, many experts say, the picture is still blurry.

“We have great things happening, but it’s not over,” said Amy Brenengen, director of Minnesota’s Office on the Economic Status of Women. “We don’t want to gain at the expense of men. That’s not real gain.”

Working more …
For decades, women had inched closer to making up half the job market in the United States and in Minnesota.

Recessions historically have hit men harder than women, and because the recent recession hit particularly hard, it put women over the top. Men held more than two-thirds of the 11 million jobs that were lost.

Anne Katner’s husband was one of them. A pharmaceutical salesman for 13 years, he was laid off December last year. It made her the sole breadwinner in their Richfield home.

“If I had the choice, I would not work at this point. I used to be a lot more committed to having a career and now I feel like I’m just doing it for money,” Katner said. “It’s not as meaningful for me.”

If not for her job as a project manager at United Healthcare, the family would be feeling the effects much more.

“It hasn’t impacted us financially yet,” she said. “But it has caused stress, just being worried. He has applied for so many jobs and isn’t hearing much.”

The recession’s initial toll on men versus women was more pronounced in Minnesota than for the country as a whole, according to a study by Teri Fritsma, senior project consultant for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, published by the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Men’s unemployment in the state nearly doubled, while women’s barely rose at all from early 2008 to early 2009.

“Early on in the recession, it was absolutely dismal for men,” Fritsma said. And while the unemployment gap between men and women narrowed slightly late in the recession, Fritsma added that many of the male-dominated jobs are not coming back. “I don’t think it’s a matter of everything bouncing back to normal. The economy is changing.”

In contrast, some of Minnesota’s more stable industries are those in which women have dominated. Women make up 68 percent of the state’s education workforce and 80 percent of its health care industry, according to Rachel Vilsack, a regional labor market analyst for DEED. And Minnesota’s health care industry is expected to add at least 114,000 new jobs in the next decade, Vilsack said.

… Still making less
But women’s earnings still lag. For instance, in Minnesota’s health care industry, they earn $13,000 annually less than men, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“[Women are] still segregated into specific occupations that tend to be a lot lower paying,” said Amy Brenengen, director of the Office on the Economic Status of Women.

Wage gap grows with children in the home

Wage gap grows with children in the homeSource: Status of Women and Girls in Minnesota, June 2010, University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute’s Center on Women and Public Policy, in partnership with the Women’s Foundation of MinnesotaNote: The column on the left shows median earnings in dollars for full-time year-round workers 16 years old and over in Minnesota in 2008. The numbers under the bar charts indicate the number of children in the family.

The gender wage gap has narrowed since 1979, when women nationally earned 62 cents for every dollar men made, but the change has come slowly.

In 2009, women in Minnesota made 78.4 percent of men’s earnings, according to the Census Bureau. That was better than the national average, but only by two-tenths of a percent.

With so many men losing their jobs, more women have become their family’s primary breadwinners. That “really makes it important to ensure that women earn as much as men in the labor market, and they don’t,” said Ariane Hegewisch of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, DC. “It really focuses on the fact that on the whole, there still is quite a big gender wage gap between men and women.”

Congress has entered the mix, but with little effect, some critics say.

The Lilly Ledbetter Act of 2009 was championed by the Obama administration as a means for women to more easily challenge pay discrimination. But others say it did little beyond clarifying what was already in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Congress has repeatedly considered a “Paycheck Fairness Act,” which would require companies to make salary information more transparent, but has never passed it.

Both bills are what Sarah Walters, a policy analyst for the Independent Women’s Forum in Washington, D.C., calls “token political tools to rally people to the polls.”

Women better educated
The wage gap persists even though women are becoming better educated than men. They have overtaken men in universities across Minnesota, and are well above the national average for graduate educations.

Sara Baldvins has seen the numbers of women grow in her chemistry classes at the University of Minnesota during her three years on campus. Baldvins had always been interested in science, and knew she would be entering a male-dominated field when she became a chemistry major.

“Progress has been very slow, but we’re slowly starting to see more and more women coming into the science majors in general,” she said. “There are some majors that are slower to incorporate women than others.”

Freshman women enrollment in the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering has grown from 17.9 percent in 2001 to 25.4 percent this year, a record high.

Women accounted for 56 percent of undergraduate students in Minnesota in 2009, according to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

They accounted for 69 percent of graduate students. That’s 10 percent more than the national average, according to a survey by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Graduate Record Examination.

The Master’s of Business Administration degree is the cornerstone of business schools. Women have chipped away at the once male-dominated enrollment, but they are still outnumbered in MBA programs across the country.

Thirty-six percent of 2009 MBA graduates nationwide were women, according to research by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

The University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management is just above the curve. Female enrollment at Carlson’s MBA program has doubled in less than a decade – from 20 percent women in 2004 to 41 percent this year, according to the school’s annual reports.

Daniel Bursch, director of recruiting and admissions at Carlson’s MBA program, doubts female enrollment in MBA programs will grow to the level it has in graduate schools across the state, but said 50 percent is within reach. And those gains will mean more power in the workplace.

“It will take time,” he said, “but the cream will always rise to the top.”

Is a degree enough?
Days after her boss in the marketing department had been given a promotion and moved to another division, Cheri Beranek overheard a conversation that wasn’t meant for her ears.

“A woman will never run marketing in my company,” she recalled hearing the president of the company say. She knew who they were talking about, and that her future with that company would be short.

Years and several companies later, Beranek is the CEO of Clearfield Inc., which makes fiber optic cables for computer networking.

She fought through attitudes like those and rose to the top of “a male-dominated world” – engineering and technology.

Beranek called herself lucky. She may be right.

She is one of only four women who cracked the top 100 highest-paid executives of public Minnesota companies, according to a list compiled by the Star Tribune in 2009. Twenty-nine men appear on that list before the first woman.

Just 15 percent of executive officers in the state’s 100 largest publicly held companies were women that year, according to a report by St. Catherine’s University economists Joann Bangs and Rebecca Hawthorne.

“When you look at the very top levels of organizations, you still see a lot of homogeneity,” said Lisa Leslie, a labor studies professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

The biggest hurdle to a woman’s career development is motherhood, Leslie said.

“The years women are likely to have children overlap with key development years in their career,” she said.

Family pressure still an obstacle
Amy Brenengen understands. Days after 18 inches of snow pummeled the Twin Cities, she got a phone call from the school district at 10:20 p.m. School the next day was canceled. Brenengen was able to scramble to ensure her kids were cared for, in part because she and her husband have flexible jobs.

But as the director of the Office on the Economic Status of Women, Brenengen knows many women don’t have that luxury, and it interferes with their careers.

“As a working mom, I feel that work/family conflict all the time,” Brenengen said.

In fact, the more children women have, the more their income lags behind men’s. Women in Minnesota, in particular, face this obstacle.

Minnesota ranks fourth in the percentage of working women who are also moms. Seventy-five percent of mothers are working in Minnesota and four out of 10 of these women are the primary breadwinners.

In Minnesota, a woman with no children earns about 88 percent of what her male counterparts earn. As the woman has children, the gap grows. At one child it’s 74 percent, at two it’s 69 percent and at three children the gap worsens to 64 percent.

Experts call it hitting the “maternal wall.” And it’s emerging nationally in policy and legal cases.

Pregnancy-related discrimination complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have grown from about 4,100 in 2000 to 6,200 in 2009. In Minnesota, the number more than doubled from 2000 to 2009, from 43 to 95.

The EEOC responded in 2007, releasing guidelines for employers on avoiding “caregiving discrimination.” They outline case law that has been developed in the past decade supporting workers’ rights in this area.

Anne Nolan knows first-hand the stresses employees face. She lost two jobs after having her second and third children. Nolan now works for WFC Resources, a company that encourages business to adopt flexible policies for workers with family pressures.

“People need to reframe the issue because they tend to think of it as a personal problem when it’s not.” Nolan said. “It belongs at the bargaining table. Eventually, everybody has some sort of family responsibility.”

Working mothers in Minnesota have one more obstacle to overcome: the state ranks third in childcare costs in the United States, creating less incentive to leave the home for a job.

Hopeful, but muddied, outlook
A big question for women is whether their relative strength during the recession was temporary, or whether they are poised to emerge as true equals in the workforce.

For some, women’s achievements in education forecast growing influence. Daniel Bursch from Carlson’s MBA program said women’s rise to power may be 12 to15 years on the horizon – when the baby boomers retire from their executive positions.

Said DEED’s Vilsack: “If we’re looking at some of the fastest growing jobs of the future to be those that require some postsecondary training, it would lend itself that women are going to be able to take some of those jobs.”

But institutional change – in workplace policy and attitudes – will also be necessary to offset discrimination and family pressures.

“Sometimes our systems and institutions don’t keep up with the reality of our families and our working lives, not just as women, but as families,” Brenengen said.

And some believe the incremental growth of women into the workplace will spark a lasting cultural change.

“Our sons have grown up with working moms, and expect to have peers that will be male and female,” Beranek said. “We’re raising our sons to treat their sisters as their peers and their equals.”

This article was produced in partnership with students at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and funded in part with a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.