Moving to Equity?

More Men Enter Fields Dominated by Women”, on the front page of Monday’s New York Times, highlighted changes in the gender composition of occupations. The New York Times’ Shalia DeWan and Robert Gebeloff extended a study that Rutgers sociologist Patricia Roos and I had conducted to better understand gender shifts in occupations in the final three decades of the 20th century. Until the 1970s, there was little change in the extent to which men and women worked in different occupations. However, during the 1970s, significant occupational desegregation by sex occurred, as women began to move rapidly into more prestigious and better-paying male occupations. These trends continued throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s. Knowing that occupational sex segregation is a key factor that contributes to the gender pay gap, we wanted to know whether integrated occupations would lead to greater gender equity and declining sex differences in labor market rewards.

We found that despite the movement of women into predominately male occupations, women continue to earn less than their male counterparts and are promoted at lower rates. Additionally, our WOW analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data released this past April found that our labor market remains quite segregated today. Of the 505 occupational categories that the Department of Labor tracks:
• One-third of all working women (34.2%) were clustered into 13 occupations.
• One-half of all working women (50.3%) were clustered into just 26 occupations.
• Two-thirds of all working women (66.9%) were clustered into 51 occupations.

One interesting finding in our research was that, from 1970 to 1990, a small number of occupations shifted gender because men entered into traditionally female jobs. Many of the men who entered these jobs tended to be foreign born, non-English speakers with low educational levels. Occupations previously devalued as women’s work began to shift to marginal male workers, as these men often had little other labor market opportunities. However, this trend seems to have changed in the first decade of the 21st century. New York Times researchers found that men who are entering predominately female occupations tend to be young, college educated men. The question everyone seems to be asking is—will the movement of these men into traditionally female occupations help move us to equity in our labor market?

While it is too early to understand the full impact of the changes in gender composition in the past decade, indications are that it does not appear to be a panacea. The New York Times research highlights that even in these traditionally female occupations men continue to out-earn women and more easily move up career ladders. So while promising, my findings and the Times’ findings suggest that occupational integration is a complicated and dynamic process. While it is certainly important to better integrate occupations, that is not enough. We also need to ensure that workplace practices and governmental policies support equity—including pay and leave policies; along with strong promotion and anti-discrimination policies. In the meantime genuine occupational integration and gender equity in earnings remain elusive in the American occupational structure, even as workers make notable inroads into sex-atypical occupations.

Mary Gatta,

Senior Scholar, Wider Opportunities for Women

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