Expert Commentary

Occupational gender segregation, social stratification and pay differences

2012 study published in the journal Sociology on the relationship between occupational segregation by gender and the extent of gender inequality.

Gender inequality (iStock)

The United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women more than 30 years ago, but discrimination continues to be a daily fact of life for women around the globe. In a 2013 report, the IMF estimated that women in OECD countries — a group of 34 developed nations — earn 16% less than their male counterparts. This plays out at all levels of society: Women physicians in the United States earn 16% less than their male counterparts, while female CEOs earn 42% less than men in similar positions. With the notable exception of Scandinavian countries, political participation is also skewed: For example, in the 2012 U.S. Congress, women held just 101 seats out of 535 total — just 19% — and that is a record high.

Why gains for women have been slow to materialize has been the subject of considerable research. A 2011 study from DePaul University looked at 57 societies around the world, measuring levels of sexist ideologies and looked for correlations with data from the U.N. Gender Equality Measure (GEM). The study found that overall, greater sexism in a society predicts decreases in gender equality over time. Another possible factor is the role of occupational segregation, where some jobs may be filled more by men or women, be it by choice, obligation, or exclusion. Understanding of this issue has been complicated by the difficulty of isolating the role of inequality in social segregation.

A 2012 study published in Sociology, “The Dimensions of Occupational Gender Segregation in Industrial Countries,” seeks to address this question. The researchers, Jennifer Jarman of Lakehead University and Robert M. Blackburn and Girts Racko of the University of Cambridge, analyze the relationship between gender inequality and occupational segregation by gender. Examining 30 industrial countries, the researchers analyze the interplay of differences in pay, social stratification and occupational segregation. The authors note that “for over a century, researchers have linked occupational feminization to disadvantaged outcomes in terms of pay, prestige, power and attractiveness of the occupation concerned, both for the women entering the occupation, and also for the occupation as a whole.”

The study’s findings include:

  • While segregation is certainly related to discrimination against women, it is also the case that the “less they are in competition with men (higher overall segregation) the greater their attainment of senior positions” and the more likely they are to be in more desirable jobs with better social positioning.
  • With the exception of Slovenia, men are better paid than women. However, “although men are consistently advantaged in pay, the study finds that the male advantage does not follow national differences in segregation, suggesting that inequality is not the driving factor of segregation.”
  • In the countries studied, occupational segregation by gender was real and substantial: Men tend to be concentrated in what have come to be perceived as “male” occupations and women in “female” ones. The five countries with the highest level of occupational segregation were Finland, Demark, Sweden, Portugal and Poland. The five with the lowest segregation were Japan, the Netherlands, Greece, Ecuador and Romania.
  • The degrees of occupational segregation and the gender gap in pay varies considerably by country: “Even the Scandinavian countries like Finland, Denmark and Sweden, known for egalitarianism and hence moderate pay inequality component, have exceptionally high degrees of overall segregation. In contrast, Japan, despite being thought of as one of the most egalitarian countries in social problems and income in the world, is the most unequal country among industrial nations in terms of gender and income.”
  • Women tend to outperform men in the general desirability of occupations, as measured by the Cambridge Social Interaction and Stratification Scale (CAMSIS). “[Such] occupations do not merely provide economic rewards, but also are highly significant in the structuring of social space and can create or obstruct pathways to social networks and opportunities.”
  • Occupational segregation and the gender gap in pay were found to be inversely related to a certain degree: “The position of women is more favorable where the overall segregation is higher — the lower the male advantage on pay and the greater the female advantage on stratification.”

Overall, the findings suggest that occupational segregation is not a clear-cut measure or indicator of gender inequality. Instead, it can have positive effects for women, particularly in terms of social positioning. “Men remain on the top in terms of pay, but women, when taken as a whole group in comparison to men as a whole group, are on the top in terms of stratification with all of the ensuing social ramifications that such a shift in social space entails. This means that women’s occupations are healthier, permit greater access to higher status networks, and involve working with better educated people than men’s occupations.”

Keywords: Gender gap, Gini coefficient, women and work

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