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Women now backbone of American economy

As part of the series "America at the Crossroads," NBC's Kate Snow explores how women change the marketplace. They hold more college degrees and are taking over the labor force.

At a recent training session for new employees at the Ogilvy ad agency in New York, you couldn't help but notice all the estrogen in the room.

Preeti Shah has never felt held back by her gender. Ten years ago she got excited about a new frontier in advertising. Now she oversees digital projects at Ogilvy.

"There was never a point in time where I thought I couldn't do this," she said.

Shah is an example of how the role of the American working woman has undergone an extreme makeover.

Women are now the backbone of the U.S. economy. About 60 percent of them work, and they comprise 46 percent of the labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Women now occupy 51 percent of managerial and professional jobs, up from 26 percent in 1980. More women are graduating from college than men. Seventy-five percent of women say they make the shopping decisions, so they're the consumers too.

And like Shah, 40 percent of working women are the primary breadwinners for their families.

That kind of change is transforming not just the workplace but it's having a profound effect on the economy.

It makes sense. You don't need Rosie the Riveter muscles to land a job in industries driven by brain power.

Females hold the majority of positions in the five fields expected to grow the most over the next decade: nursing, customer service, food and beverage, personal aide and health aide.

All that change is changing the bottom line, too.

David Ross, a professor at Columbia Business School, did a comprehensive study of over 2,000 of the largest U.S. companies found companies performed significantly better when they had women in the management ranks than when they did not.

“On average women may approach management in a more democratic, less dictatorial, more collaborative manner than men,” Ross said. “And on certain kinds of tasks that can have a significant impact on the performance of an entire organization.”

The top tiers of the hotel industry used to be a men's club. But at Kimpton Hotels about half of the managers are now women thanks in part to a mentoring program founded by the female president nearly 15 years ago.

Kimpton President Niki Leondakis says it makes a difference in the culture of the organization. In the '90s she was nicknamed "The Terminator." She felt she had to manage like a man. No more.

"I started to realize I could be as tough as a man and at the same time show compassion and be a good listener and create an inclusive work environment," Leondakis said.

It's why business schools are teaching about empathetic leadership.

It's why Norway has mandated that corporate boards be 40 percent female.

Of course for women in America, it's not all rosy.

A new projection by the Institute For Women's Policy Research for NBC News shows women won't make the same salaries as men until 2056.

In the Fortune 500, there are still only 15 female CEOs.

Still things are changing. It may not be perfect, or easy, but Shah sees a clear path for her 5-year-old daughter.

"My mother was a full-time pediatrician; I'm a full-time working mom," Shah said. "I have no doubt that she will be brilliant at whatever she does and that she will be a working woman."

Eventually all those little girls who grow up to work in a more equitable job environment will tip the scales even further, joining the generations of women who are already an engine for this new economy.