When Jane Williams was looking for work in the 1970s, employers were more interested in her typing skills than her economics degree. Now the chief executive of a California wealth management firm, she feels that she's just hitting her stride - and is in no hurry to retire.
For a generation of women who transformed the workplace, the idea of giving up their jobs holds little appeal. Women born during the baby boom are still changing the work force, with many expected to stay in professional jobs into their 60s and beyond, according to projections by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Williams, 54, worked as a bank teller, a medical technician and a researcher for the Canadian Economic Council as she followed her husband's career path from city to city. She finally joined Merrill Lynch in 1973, becoming the firm's first female broker in Canada. When she transferred to California, her husband followed her.
"The story was at that time, 'Gee, our clients are men, we don't know if they'll respond to a woman,"' said Williams, who spent eight years with the firm before co-founding Sand Hill Advisors in Palo Alto, Calif. "There was this perception that women would just get pregnant and leave, that they weren't as loyal to companies, and it's just not true!"
Now, at the pinnacle of her career and with her two sons almost grown, Williams is sometimes surprised at how passionate she is about her work. "It's about gratification, not a paycheck," she said.
Nearly half of all boomers, the generation born between 1946 and 1964, plan to work past retirement simply because they need the money, according to a survey by retirement adviser Allstate Financial. Many are women, who are better educated, better paid and more attached to the labor force than ever before.
The number of working women over the age of 55 is expected to rise by 51.7 percent over the next decade, from 8.2 million to 12.4 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number working past 65 is projected to go up 32 percent, from 1.8 million in 2000 to 2.3 million in 2010.
Carrie Pryor, 50, was an investment banker on Wall Street until she was laid off in the late 1980s. Married at 33, she had her first child at 36 and then stumbled onto a second career as an executive recruiter after a friend asked her to do some part-time work. She found the job to be so flexible that after her second daughter was born, she never had to take a day off.
"I have two girls in middle school, so of course that's a motivating factor," said Pryor, now a partner with Christian & Timbers in New York. "The other reason I work is because I'm very independent and I like the sense of having a world or universe or influence in something that's mine. ... I don't even think about quitting."
According to research by the advocacy group Catalyst, women hold about half of all supervisory and management positions. About 16 percent of corporate officers in the Fortune 500 are women, up from 8.7 percent in 1995, when the group starting keeping track.
"There's definitely a cohort of women who have been in the labor force for their entire careers and they're not going to stop cold," said Marcia Brumit Kropf, 57, who oversees Catalyst's research department.
As more companies adopt flexible time policies and it becomes more acceptable for workers to take time off to have children or care for aging parents, more women will reach senior posts, Kropf said. One remaining barrier is that women sometimes have trouble finding mentors.
Nina Ramsey, vice president of corporate human resources at Kelly Services in Troy, Mich., was thrilled when a younger employee who was considering having a child came to her for advice. Ramsey, hired in 1992 when she was four months pregnant, credits the company's "female-friendly" atmosphere with allowing her to find a balance between work and life.
"I'm delighted to be able to give her a sense of hope," said Ramsey, 49, who was promoted to senior management while on maternity leave. "I hope to be working with Kelly for quite a while into the future ... I can see myself working to 65 and beyond."
Kelly was among 60 Fortune 500 companies praised by Catalyst last year for having 25 percent or more of their corporate offices held by women. First on the list was Avon, with women in 44 percent of the top jobs, including CEO Andrea Jung. Young women moving through the ranks at the cosmetics maker don't have to look far for role models, said Laura Castellano, manager for corporate affairs.
"From my perspective, the sky is the limit. Women tend to want to stay in the work force longer because they are considering goals they hadn't considered before," said Castellano, 49, who joined the company fresh out of high school as a secretary at its New York headquarters. She took business classes through Avon's tuition reimbursement program and climbed the corporate ladder.
"As a single person, I have only myself to depend on, and having invested so much time in this company is a great feeling of security," Castellano said. "I have every intention of continuing here at Avon until they kick me out."
By Meg Richards