As Shirley L. Bigley worked her way up from law school graduate to Citibank Maryland vice president during the 1980s, she never felt like a pioneer among working women.
It was more like being part of a movement, she says. Sure enough, newly released 1990 census figures show Ms. Bigley had plenty of female company as she climbed the job ladder.
Tens of thousands of Maryland women -- and millions across the United States -- moved into professional and managerial jobs during the 1980s, the data show.
"It was right in my vintage when the numbers of women dramatically started to change," said Ms. Bigley, 38, Citibank's director of community affairs and the first woman in her family to earn a college degree. "My law school class was about 40 percent female, and it never occurred to me when I was younger that I wasn't going to go to college and professional school."
For the first time, the 1990 census shows, women outnumbered men in Maryland in "professional specialty" occupations -- a U.S. Census Bureau category that includes everything from doctors, lawyers and scientists to teachers, nurses and librarians.
Maryland women had nearly half the jobs in the "executive, administrative and managerial" category --which includes a wide range of managers as well as accountants and buyers. That was up from only one-third in 1980, according to the Maryland Office of Planning.
However, the single largest group of Maryland women -- more than 350,000 -- still worked in lower-paying "administrative support" jobs, such as secretaries and clerks.
The Maryland figures reflect some national trends: women's growing role in the work force (a phenomenon that began in earnest in the 1970s); the growth of white-collar service jobs; and the decline of blue-collar manufacturing work.
Nationally, the number of working women increased by 27 percent during the 1980s, according to 1990 census data being released today. In Maryland, women in the work force shot up by more than one-third.
As the postwar baby boom generation finished entering the job market, Maryland's work force grew by 25 percent overall. By 1990, the state ranked third in the nation with 63 percent of women working, up from 44 percent in 1970.
Fresh from the University of Maryland law school, Shirley Bigley started the decade as a $16,000-a-year lawyer with a private firm, then became an assistant staff counsel for the Maryland Public Service Commission.
Feeling "the glass ceiling right on top of my head with the state" after several promotions, she jumped back into the private sector with Citibank in 1989. She now makes "over $75,000" a year.
But Ms. Bigley wonders what's in store for the women managers and professionals who came of age in the 1980s. It's unclear how much the economic slowdown of the early 1990s has eroded women's gains.
"We're still very much bunched in middle management and vulnerable to layoffs and downsizing. We baby boomers are out there crowding the ranks," Ms. Bigley said.
"Where do you go when you're 38 years old, and you've gone farther than your mother or father would have dreamed of going by 50 or 55?" she asked.
Women have crossed "an important threshold" by moving wholesale into higher-paying professional and managerial categories, said Martha Farnsworth Riche, director of policy studies at the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau in Washington.
"This is really a reflection of women's increasing role in education," Ms. Riche said. "In the 1980s women became more than half of college students and of people getting Ph.D.'s. You're really seeing a pipeline effect that will continue for the foreseeable future."
But Ms. Riche said studies show that when women enter a profession en masse, wages go down, possibly because of discrimination or simply supply and demand.
"My suspicion is we'll see women doing family law and medicine, and men retreating into high-tech, high-paying specialties. There will be an income gap between men and women working within a profession," she said.
The presence of black women in the Maryland work force jumped 45 percent during the 1980s. Their numbers in the managerial category nearly tripled, to almost 11 percent.
Overall, more black women (101,000) joined the Maryland work force, in net terms, than white men (94,000) over the decade.
But the gains made by black women were not shared by black men. Both nationally and in Maryland, blacks were the only major racial or ethnic group in which women outnumbered men in the civilian work force.
"The rise of female-headed households has been tied directly to the loss of black male employment. You are seeing more women alone, more single mothers in the black community," said Bonnie Thornton Dill, a sociologist at the University of Maryland at College Park.
Black men were only a small fraction of white-collar workers in Maryland. Black men made up 11.6 percent of Maryland's working-age population in 1990, but had only 5.5 percent of professional occupations, 6.6 percent of sales jobs, and 7 percent of managerial positions.
By contrast, black men accounted for nearly one-third of security personnel and of handlers, helpers and laborers.
The blue-collar sector of the economy where many black men work shriveled in the nation and the state in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, there was a boom in the technical, managerial and professional occupations where black men are underrepresented.
Overall, the number of Maryland workers declined in the blue-collar categories of machine operators, assemblers and inspectors (down nearly 20 percent), and helpers, handlers and laborers (off about 12 percent).
"We really haven't got anything to offer in the way of a future for the person who has had a well-paying, unskilled blue-collar job," Ms. Riche said.