Business or Personal? Gendered Professional Pathways After Job Loss

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By Aliya Hamid Rao, Ph.D.

John is a white, college-educated professional who lost his job. When I interviewed John, he  chalked up his job loss as being a business decision, “A work superior explained to me that the business outlook was not looking good for the upcoming months. And consequently, it was a business decision, and not related to my work performance.” John added, “it was all based on dollars.” As I explain in a new article published in Gender & Society, for John and for dozens of other unemployed men that I interviewed, the process of losing a job was a fact of the contemporary U.S. economy. For some it also appeared to reinforce their professional value. James, a white project manager in healthcare described the meeting on the elimination of his position as “awkward” because his superiors “did not want to see this happen…Based on their professional and personal respect for me and based on the contribution and the value that I represented.” James felt that his bosses valued him even as they eliminated his position.

When I interviewed women who had lost their jobs, they were far less sanguine. Some women too saw their job loss as a business decision. For instance, Claire who worked in media explained that this “isn’t my first layoff,” referencing the reality that layoffs have now simply become an inevitable part of many sectors. Yet, unlike many of the men, even when women saw their job loss as a business decision, they did not emphasize that this process provided a sense of value. Moreover, women who had lost their jobs also often saw their job loss as a deeply personal decision made by employers and which devalued women’s professional worth. For instance, Kelly’s job loss unfolded over months, after she was assigned a new manager. Kelly felt that the new manager was contemptuous of her and did not see her as having any professional value. She describes how she felt, “I certainly must be doing something wrong. I must be awful at this job.” Once she was informed that she no longer had a job, Kelly internalized this lack of professional worth even more acutely, describing, “So I kind of absorbed that and for a long time I carried that with me.” She added, “I would cry my eyes out because I felt so worthless. It was just a cruel way to leave and I felt bad for a long time.” Sighing, she said, “I was so crushed emotionally.”

Why would men and women understand their job loss in such different ways? I argue in this article that women who lost their jobs often viewed this event through a long lens of being disrespected and devalued in the workplace over years, even decades. While Kelly’s manager’s treatment of her made Kelly doubt her professional worth, other women emphasized how their sacrifices for their job – especially time with young children – was recompensed through the institutional payback of losing their jobs. The data on women’s devaluation in organizations and in labor markets is robust: women’s qualifications, their leadership, and their personality are routinely questioned in a way that men’s simply are not. In this context, job loss becomes another pivotal moment for women in particular. For men, for the most part, job loss is of course an unpleasant experience, but it does not typically function to make men completely doubt their professional worth in this manner.

What do these understandings of job their job loss mean for the professional pathways that men and women pursue subsequently? I find that participating in paid work remains of primary importance to unemployed men and they imagine three main pathways: 1) no change in professional aspirations and searching for a full-time standard job with benefits; 2) searching for lucrative, albeit short-term and non-standard, contract work; 3) pursuing entrepreneurial pathways that they often see as an appropriate response to unreliable employers.

Women too had three pathways: 1) most women who lost their jobs also wanted full-time, standard jobs with benefits; 2) some wanted entrepreneurial jobs for the flexibility they saw this pathway as offering or because they viewed this pathway as minimizing the control an unkind superior could have on them; 3) for some women, job loss often served as a key moment to reassess their relationship to paid work. This latter group comprises women who saw their job loss as personal and those who did not. More than women’s interpretation of job loss, age of children appears to matter: unemployed women with young children tend to reconsider the role they want employment to play in their lives overall. Grace, a white unemployed woman, described her job loss as a leaving a “bad taste” in her mouth. Losing her job prompted Grace to rethink her professional pathway. She said, “I realized that you don’t always have to follow the track that you’re on. I was on a full-time career track and miserable in it.” Grace added, “I never thought ‘Well can we [manage finances] if I go to part-time or consult? Until I was forced in that position.” For these women, the lack of care infrastructure and the hostility of many workplaces to recognize childcare needs which disproportionately fall on women, in addition to job loss, was key in rethinking their attachment to paid work.

Job loss is pervasive and women in particular are more at risk of losing a job through practices of downsizing and restructuring. In this context, we must conceive of job loss as an expected – not anomalous – workplace experience. Research on getting hired or getting promoted shows how the gendered labor market disadvantages women. In this article, I ask that we turn our attention to job loss as a gendered and prevalent workplace experience. My research is a step towards illuminating how the experience and interpretation of job loss matters for gendered inequalities in professional pathways.

Dr. Aliya Hamid Rao (@aliyahrao) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Methodology at the London School of Economics. Her research uses qualitative methods to illuminate the gendered experiences of unemployment in the U.S. professional middle-class.

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.