She has a very good post on women in the labor force:
The Shriver report's central point is a truism of women's history: women's social, economic and political power is directly related to their presence in the workforce. The gains of the last forty years--in political representation, reproductive rights, education, combating violence against women--would never have happened without the steady and massive increase in the number of working women and the transformative effects of all those paychecks. Some might be tempted to spin the magic 50 percent to suggest that feminism's job is done. First it was dead because it was a failure; now it's dead because it was such a success.
Maybe too much of a success. As Reihan Salam worries in his article "The Death of Macho," "The problem of macho run amok and excessively compensated is now giving way to macho unemployed and undirected--a different but possibly just as destructive phenomenon." If 78 percent of those who have lost their jobs in this recession are men, that must mean women's gains are coming at men's expense, right? Actually, no. Women may have a bigger slice of a shrunken pie, but because the labor force is still quite gender-segregated, mostly they are not competing with men for work. The top ten jobs for women are, in order, secretary, nurse, elementary- and middle-school teacher, cashier, retail salesperson, health aide, retail supervisor, waitress, bookkeeper and receptionist. Men have lost more jobs than women in the recession because the ax has fallen more sharply in heavily male fields like construction and manufacturing than in female ones like healthcare and clerical work. As economist Barbara Bergmann wrote in an unpublished letter to the New York Times, "An important reason for the failure to reduce the gap between women's and men's average wages is that little progress has been made in reducing gender segregation in jobs that do not require a college degree." Interestingly, according to the Wall Street Journal, on the professional end of the workforce, where men and women are more likely to have the same or similar jobs, as many women as men have been laid off.
Katha is right about the extent of gender segregation* at work in occupations which don't require graduate degrees. It is greater than similar segregation measures between any ethnic groups you care to mention. In short, women are concentrated in traditionally female occupations, men in traditionally male occupations. The latter pay better but are currently experiencing greater job losses. That work is so segregated by gender is part of the reason why requiring equal pay for equal pay doesn't really close the gender gap in earnings that much.
But what I really wanted to write about is the beginning of the above quote: How women's labor market participation directly correlates with women's political and economic power.
It does, and some of the reasons are fairly obvious. For example, having a paycheck gives one more say in the family and more respect in those societies where women's unpaid labor is invisible or taken for granted, and having economic resources means that women can leave dysfunctional marriages or contribute towards a political cause or otherwise affect their own lives more.
But there are other ways in which this correlation might work. Men and women working in the same office or factory makes them share experiences, grievances and goals. A traditional society offers few general (as opposed to intra-family) opportunities for this and may even juxtapose the interests of men and women. Work and schools are places where the sexes can meet as individuals. Well, in an ideal situation.
Finally, the presence of women in the labor market should mean that firms and the wider society can no longer ignore the traditional work women have done but must adjust work so that this work, too, gets performed. This is not quite taking place in the United States. More pressure is needed.
*This segregation may or may not be voluntary. That depends on how one views the reasons that people have for ending up in a certain job category. Note also that gender segregation in jobs does not, in general, mean that women are physically as segregated from men. Men might work in the same office or factory, just not under the same occupational title.