An inadvertent consequence of recessionary cutbacks may be a few more cracks in the glass ceiling for women in the workplace. Because 82 percent of jobs lost thus far in this downturn belonged to men (according to a recent New York Times article), women have inched further to becoming the majority in the labor force.

Women hold 49.1 percent of jobs, according to recent non-farm payroll data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, so if layoffs in male-dominant sectors like construction and manufacturing persist, it seems likely that women – many of whom are employed in more shielded industries such as health care and education – will surpass them.

"It's a paradigm shift," says Mary Murphree, Ph.D., senior adviser at the Sloan Center on Innovative Training and Workforce Development at Rutgers University. The country's capacity to weather the downturn will depend increasingly on these working women, she says. Yet, while this may be a significant – and perhaps celebratory – moment historically, the downturn has made some working women feel more, not less vulnerable.

"While this is kind of a phenomenal moment," says Murphree, "[the downturn] could result in tremendous backsliding for women." Women who are employed may feel anxious requesting maternity leave or extra time for childcare when so many jobs are in jeopardy. And on the employer side, some companies may slash diversity hiring programs that have benefited women in the past.