This slight edge in empathy is one reason why women may be drawn toward people-oriented jobs in industry, such as human resources and public relations. Many women feel a natural affinity for interpersonal and verbal tasks, and refine their skills through lots of practice (and then, perhaps unconsciously, veer away from finance, which is perceived as cut-and-dried). Elizabeth Hirst, a lecturer with McGill University's public relations programs, agrees that her discipline, now 75% female, appeals to people-the majority of them women-who gravitate toward the interpersonal, communicative aspects of organizational life and, for better or worse, away from the career moves that would move them up the corporate ladder.
Women started to predominate in corporate communications shortly after she began to work in the field in the mid-seventies, Hirst says. "The reasons are many. First, they are generally trained to listen and are good communicators, and two-way communication is the sine qua non of public relations. Second, they moved up through event organization-another thing men were glad to leave to them. And third, they are good negotiators and client relations people. I believe the respect for other groups' interests and opinions, and the ability to negotiate and compromise without controlling the outcome, is the way of the future in all human relationships."
It's not only the way of the future, it's the way of the present. Disciplines that have become primarily female in just two generations, such as veterinary science, and medical specialties like pediatrics, obstetrics and family medicine, are gradually becoming more responsive to the needs of women, especially younger women. Perhaps these women were drawn to those fields for intellectual reasons, or because the work resonated with them in a deep way, but now that they're there in such high numbers, "they're pushing it to be more family-friendly," says Perle Feldman, the academic physician currently attempting to recruit the single (dare I say, token) male doctor to her team. Now that most obstetric trainees are female, "their hours are not a picnic, but they're not as heinous as they used to be," Feldman notes.
Anne-Marie Gosselin, a Montreal emergency room pediatrician with three children under 7, describes a similar pattern. Given that her department at the Montreal Children's Hospital comprises 14 women and six men, there's flexibility about schedules, and an easy-going attitude about pinch-hitting for colleagues-"because it's a philosophical thing"-that's even espoused by the outnumbered male doctors. "Our department has been great. They allow us to work part-time schedules," which amounts to between 20 and 24 hours a week for Gosselin. "If they decided we couldn't work part-time now, they'd lose their staff. And they want to retain us."
One of Gosselin's pediatric colleagues at the hospital added this postscript about the ethics of the matter: Just because a specialty has more women than men doesn't mean people should value it less. "They should be treated equally to other specialties, respected and paid properly," says Dominique Panet-Raymond.
These seem to be the object lessons from the new world of female-dominated professions. Be flexible about re-examining expectations about hours and career paths that were laid down when the work world was mostly male-or be prepared to find new talent. And a field where men are becoming scarce shouldn't lose its lustre. On the contrary, men who want a life might want to apply within.
Susan Pinker, a Montreal psychologist, is a Globe and Mail columnist and author of The Sexual Paradox.