Women in the Workplace Part 1: Sex-Segmented Labor

By Isabel Jenkins

“On average, full-time working women earn just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.”

Many Americans, especially feminists, are familiar with this statistic. But what most don’t understand is that the gender gap in the workplace isn’t just about unequal pay.

A focus on the numerical wage gap ignores the many other obstacles blocking women from equality in the workplace. The circumstances that influence a woman’s decision to enter a certain profession—and how she’s treated after she has the job—say much more about the state of the American workplace than a simple wage gap statistic does.

The gender wage gap has lowered by 17% in the 50 years since the passage of The Equal Pay Act, reports the National Equal Pay Task Force. Compared to women’s 59.8% of men’s pay in 1963, 77% today is doubtlessly an improvement. But a more important issue lies in the division of jobs available to men and women, not in the disparity between pay for equal jobs. The Huffington Post reports that women make up two-thirds of low-wage workers and only 14.6% of the top earning positions at Fortune 500 companies.

Women demonstrate interest in fields like early childhood education, social work, and visual and performing arts beginning in their college years, reports Christina Hoff Sommers in a well researched but poorly informed article published by The Daily Beast. She points to the fact that engineering majors in college tend to be from 72% (chemical engineering) to 97% (naval architecture and marine engineering) male dominated as proof that “the sexes, taken as a group, are somewhat different”.

Positions in early childhood education and social work yield on average $36,000 to $39,000 a year, whereas petroleum engineering positions boast $80,000 to $120,000 salaries, the article reports. The first implication here: America doesn’t value mental health and family stability the same way it values commercial development. The second implication: Women are entering professions that pay significantly less than jobs held by men. Sommers concludes, “Much of the wage gap can be explained away by simply taking account of college majors. In the pursuit of happiness, men and women appear to take different paths.”

She’s onto something… But this disparity of interest in professions is not as organic as she makes it sound. The sexes are different, but it’s unclear where this difference starts. Do preferences for the “caring professions” begin to form in girls while they’re still in utero? Or do they take root after birth, when girls are showered with baby dolls and child-sized plastic kitchens?

If boys and girls are socialized differently starting in early childhood, it’s highly possible that their career preferences later in life result from this socialization. This process creates sex-segmented labor, or professions that are dominated by one sex. Stereotypical ideas of nurses and doctors, or secretaries and CEOs, highlight how implicit the gender gap is in our understanding of the professional world. Because men traditionally tend towards certain types of jobs and women towards others, it can be difficult to accept exceptions to these social rules (the word “murse” used to describe a “male nurse”, for example). And because typically male dominated jobs, like engineering, are higher-paying than female dominated jobs, like teaching, the gender wage gap widens.

Women are just as capable of succeeding in male-dominated professions as men are. Contrary to Summor’s belief that men and women are inherently suited to different professions, a Cornell University study found that gender differences in math and science proficiency are negligible. The real determining factor is confidence, and studies show that boys are culturally taught to be more confident in math than girls are.

In the classroom, girls are more likely than boys to double- and triple-check their answers before speaking in front of a class, reports a study conducted by University of Georgia psychologist Martha Carr. Boys, on the other hand, are encouraged to compete—“being first” presides over “being right”. This confident speed, dubbed “math fluency”, helps boys to do well as math classes become harder. Girls fall behind simply because they don’t trust their abilities.

In 1983, there were 13 boys to every girl in America who scored in the top one in 10,000 in mathematics. By 2007, this ratio had shrunk to approximately 3 boys for every girl. “If the difference were just in the genome, there would not be that improvement,” Beth Azar wrote in her review of the study for the American Psychological Association. Scientists credit the increase in female math achievers to changing social norms that encourage girls to take higher-level math classes in high school. A confident push could be all it takes to encourage girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Today, women earn 48% of bachelors’ degrees in math, says Hyde. If women are just as capable as men are intellectually, why aren’t high-paying STEM professions more gender equal? Hyde blames the corporate culture of math-centered professions, specifically engineering, for catering to the documented male interest in “things” as opposed to “people”. In purposely presenting the image of STEM careers as purely technical, with no interpersonal element, corporate culture makes sure women think twice about applying.

Organizations nationwide are fighting to reverse this trend by showing girls and women that STEM careers are not only just available to them, but that they are also exciting and satisfying professions. The Institution of Education Sciences has a downloadable guide available to teachers that aims to interest girls in math and science in the classroom. Goldiblox encourages young girls to play with “construction toys” as an alternative to traditionally “girly” toys, hoping to engage girls in math and science before they can be socialized to dislike it. Their first commercial was a hit because of its unconventional message about what it means to be a girl.

In encouraging girls from an early age to feel confident in their abilities in math, science, and beyond, we as a society can make the dream of higher-paying professions a reality for women. Although this only addresses a fraction of the gender gap in the workplace, it’s a wonderful place to start.

Sex-segmented labor, sexual harassment, discrimination against mothers—these factors critically influence where women work and how much they make. “Sex-Segmented Labor” is the first post of a trilogy that will unpack the myth of the gender wage gap to reveal the real inequalities for working women.

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