Gender-Typed Skill Co-Occurrence and Occupational Sex Segregation in U.S. Professional Occupations

By Constance Hsiung

A popular “brain teaser” in the early 1990s asked: A boy and his father get into a serious car accident, and both are taken straight to the emergency room. The boy requires surgery and is taken to the operating room. The surgeon enters the room, and says “I can’t operate on this boy: he’s my son.” How is this possible?

The explanation is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother, but because so few women were surgeons then – and indeed now – it was assumed that few listeners would quickly arrive at this answer. This provides one example of a larger gender divide in jobs: some jobs are mostly performed by women and others by men. Although this form of gender segregation has been decreasing for over half a century, it persists today even in the professional jobs where women’s representation has increased most dramatically in recent decades. Present-day examples include registered nurses, special education teachers, and occupational therapists, over 80% of whom are women. Similarly, men make up over 80% of computer programmers, most types of engineers (e.g., aerospace, electrical and electronics), and the clergy. Such divisions sharpen when we also consider technical jobs such as physicians’ assistants and broadcast and sound engineering technicians.

Recent sociological studies have discovered an important explanation for this form of gender segregation: the “gender stereotyping” of certain skills. For example, it is widely believed that men are better at math and negotiating for higher salaries, whereas women are better at caring for young children and mediating social conflicts. The stronger such stereotypes are, the more they reinforce the link between a job’s gendered skill requirements and its sex composition. The basic reason for this pattern is clear: the more certain skills become associated with a given gender, the more both workers and employers will act on the basis of such associations. Consequently, jobs that require more “masculine” skills hire, retain, and attract more men, whereas those that require more “feminine” skills hire, retain, and attract more women.

But in reality, many jobs today require masculine and feminine skills. How does this combination influence the gender segregation of jobs? If we follow the gender stereotyping explanation discussed above, the skill requirements should have opposite effects on job sex composition. That is, for women the masculine skill requirements should decrease their representation, while the feminine skill requirements should increase it. However, this is not what we observe in many of the professional jobs dominated by women, e.g., nurses, most kinds of therapists (e.g., physical, speech), and pre-school teachers. These jobs have above-average requirements for both masculine and feminine skills: those involving physical strength, and those related to helping and caring for others, respectively. Yet, women’s representation increases with requirements for both types of skills. What explains this relationship? 

In my recent article in Gender & Society, I show that women dominate these professional jobs because the jobs’ masculine physical strength requirements co-occur with the feminine skills involved in helping and caring for others. In other words, as requirements for these feminine skills increase, so too do the requirements for the masculine skills (and vice versa). But the requirements for feminine skills are higher than those for masculine skills. Women are drawn into these jobs by feminine skill requirements and not deterred by requirements for masculine skills even if they are above what most other jobs require. 

My research suggests that the gender segregation of jobs arises from gender stereotypes about combinations of masculine and feminine skills rather than independently from any single skill requirement. The reality is that feminine and masculine skills are both needed in jobs often held by women.

The jobs I studied are popularly associated with women, in part as a result of their feminine skill requirements. Yet, they require more physical strength than many jobs dominated by men with similar levels of education and training! How can these skill requirements be reconciled with the widespread view of these jobs as “women’s work”?

The more we know about how these stereotypes operate and are formed, the more likely we are to understand and achieve gender equality in employment.

Constance Hsiung is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Sociology, Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany. Her research interests lie in the sociology of culture, gender, and work.