Occupational gender segregation: the evolving and paradoxical process

By Margarita Torre, Ph.D. and Jerry A. Jacobs, Ph.D.

In the United States, women comprise 47 percent of the labor force. Yet this does not mean that each line of work is nearly half female. Far from it. Some jobs, such as hairdressers, nurses and special-education teachers, are overwhelmingly female (more than 85 percent women), while others, such as mechanical engineers, electricians and firefighters, are overwhelmingly male (less than 10 percent women). There are gender-neutral occupations as well: biological scientists; news reporters, and bus drivers (between 45 and 50 percent female). Taking all workers together, about half of women would have to change occupations to make the labor market gender-neutral. The gender segregation of work contributes to the gender gap in pay and remains a key part of our gendered understanding of the social division of labor between women and men.

Careers are often conceived of as steady movements from entry-level positions to higher levels of responsibility, authority, and earnings. However, the experiences of many workers do not fit this idealized trajectory. Gender-type mobility (movement between male-dominated, gender-neutral, and female-dominated occupations) is especially at odds with this conventional view of career paths. For example, women employed in male-dominated occupations such as skilled trades, restaurant chefs, and computer coders often leave these jobs, despite the short-term and long-term cost of such moves. At the other end of the gender spectrum are many female-dominated fields with high levels of turnover, such as teachers, restaurant servers, salesclerks, and home health aides. While these positions often have limited opportunities for promotion, some women nonetheless find their way from these jobs into gender-neutral and even male-dominated fields. In short, gender segregation is not fixed from the day that workers enter the labor market but is shuffled and reshuffled. This movement across gender-type boundaries in some ways resembles a “revolving door.”

In our new paper in Gender & Society, we examine the process that produces gender segregation and how this process has evolved since the 1970s. We identify two main trends. First, the overall level of gender segregation in the workplace has declined. The index of segregation declined from 70 in 1970 to 50 by 1990, and it has remained at this level for the last three decades. In other words, gender segregation in the labor market remains entrenched, although at a lower level than was the case in 1970. There has been more progress toward gender-integration in professional and managerial jobs than in blue-collar positions.

Second, there is somewhat less movement between male-dominated, gender-neutral and female-dominated occupations than was the case in earlier decades. To be sure, there is still considerable movement across these lines. For example, for women starting out in male-dominated occupations, more than two-thirds of those who change occupations (69.2 percent) move out of this domain, ending up either in gender-neutral (43.4 percent) or female-dominated (25.8 percent) fields. These rates of mobility, though lower than in the 1970s and 1980s, remain exceptionally high. Here again, the trends were most evident in professional and managerial jobs relative to blue-collar occupations.

We find that people are now more likely to stay in either gender dominated or gender equal jobs now than in the past. This last finding seems to represent a paradox: why would gender-type mobility decline after the overall level of segregation has declined?

The decline in gender mobility cannot be attributed to a decline in overall occupational mobility patterns. On the contrary, women (and men) are more likely to change occupations today while in their twenties and thirties than was the case several decades ago. This pattern is consistent with increasing precarity in the labor market and increased instability in the early life course. In other words, gender-type mobility has declined even though more women are “at risk” of changing occupations today than in earlier generations. Also, unlike previous studies following a life-course approach, we find no systematic pattern of mothers fleeing male-dominated occupations and childless women fleeing female-dominated occupations.

We argue the decline in gender mobility results from a combination of  factors which emphasizes the lessening constraints that women face in pursuing a full set of occupational choices that occur before, during, and after they enter the  labor market.

Some women have begun to see entering male-dominated occupations as a less daunting prospect especially if their experiences in such fields become more positive. We see a decline in occupational segregation because the lowering barriers to entry may result in more investment in occupation-specific skills, thus expanding the pool of women prepared to pursue male-dominated fields. There may also be less pressure for women to exit male-dominated fields. In other words, gender-type mobility may have declined in part because a minority of women have pursued careers exclusively in male-dominated fields and increasingly succeeded in their attempts. 

The findings and analysis presented in this paper point to the importance of addressing workplace factors in reducing gender segregation. Our results underscore the continuing attrition of women from male-dominated fields. Issues such as sexual harassment in the workplace, promoting more female-friendly workplace cultures, and instituting more family-friendly workplace policies may prove fruitful in reducing women’s attrition from male-dominated fields.

The data also underscore the need to devote more attention to building pathways for women into male-dominated fields. These non-standard pathways appear to be even less available to women in recent years than they were in the 1970s and 1980s. Given the high level of turnover in many female-dominated fields, there is a pool of women who could benefit economically from moving to gender-neutral and male-dominated occupations.

Finally, increasing pay in culturally undervalued female-dominated occupations remains an important objective. There may be some progress in this area as a result of efforts to increase the minimum wage and the Biden administration’s focus on investing in the “infrastructure” of care work, much of which is done by low-paid women. These factors could produce uncertain and even contradictory effects on mobility patterns, but they would improve the economic position of women and make the gender segregation of occupations less costly to women and to society in general.

Margarita Torre is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University Carlos III of Madrid and a fellow at the Carlos III-Juan March Institute (IC3JM). Her research centers on gender and work, with a focus on the mechanisms of exclusion encountered by both men and women seeking nontraditional jobs. Her current projects examine the evolution of gender inequality in scientific collaborations across countries and disciplines, and the performance of gender in social media.

Jerry A. Jacobs is Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written about many aspects of women’s careers, including gender gaps in earnings, authority and time use, and gender inequality in higher education. His six books include The Time Divide: Work, Family, and Gender Inequality (2004) with Kathleen Gerson and The Changing Face of Medicine: Women Doctors and the Evolution of Health Care in America (2008) with Ann Boulis. His current projects include research on the future of work and a study of technology and the care work needs of older adults.

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