Woman working on wing section, Boeing Aircraft Company.

A new study of gender and employment has found that women’s status in the workforce is rising faster than men’s, but men on average still earn more than their female colleagues.

Women’s occupations are healthier, permit greater access to higher status networks, and involve working with better-educated people than men’s occupations.

Robert Blackburn

The findings are the key result of the first systematic analysis of the different dimensions of occupational gender segregation in industrialised countries, described in a paper published today in Sociology.  Occupations are segregated by gender when men or women are concentrated in different kinds of jobs.

The Dimensions of Occupational Gender Segregation in Industrial Countries” considers both economic and social factors in order to measure the extent to which the division of work along gender lines results in inequality.

“Men remain on the top in terms of pay, but women, when taken as a whole, are on the top in terms of social stratification,” explained Professor Robert Blackburn, Emeritus Reader in Sociology at the University of Cambridge.

“Our results suggest the pay inequality is less than often assumed, though still too high,” he added. “Considering that the UK led the way with equal pay for government employees in the 1950s, progress has been slow.”

Contrary to popular belief, the research has found that occupational segregation – where economic opportunities are divided into “jobs for the boys” and “women’s work” - does not in itself cause inequality.  It is possible for men and women to be “different but equal.” This was particularly true in Scandinavian countries which have made gender equality a political priority.

“It is a mistake to regard segregation as a measure or even an indicator of gender inequality disadvantaging women” says Professor Blackburn. “But the existence of segregation creates the opportunity for gender inequality across occupations, and restricts occupational choice for both women and men.”

Recognising that there is more to rewarding work than simply bringing in a wage, the research evaluated the relationship between gender and the desirability of an occupation, in terms of social status, class position, and relative position in social hierarchies.

Unexpectedly, women hold the more attractive occupations in all countries except Austria. This finding challenges accepted wisdom. Traditionally increased representation of women in a workplace has been thought to lead to reduced status and authority, both for the women entering the profession and the profession as a whole.

“The general lack of publicity of this advantage to women is surprising,” comments Professor Blackburn. “Women’s occupations are healthier, permit greater access to higher status networks, and involve working with better-educated people than men’s occupations.”

These changes result in part from the successes of the women’s movement over the last 50 years in encouraging workplace participation and challenging discrimination such as the marriage bar.  Another influence is the decline in manual employment – it is predominantly women who have moved into non-manual, professional roles.

In all countries except one, particularly where men and women compete in the same occupations, men on average earn more than women. The exception to this was Slovenia, where women on average earn more than men - not because women have risen up the pay ladder, but because men slipped down in in the transition from state socialism to capitalism.

Factors behind the difference in pay in the UK include that women tend to be younger with less experience, and that work-life inequalities lead to women working fewer hours.

“The higher the overall segregation, the lower the economic advantage to men,” the research concludes. “This is directly contrary to popular assumptions. It is, however, consistent with the continuing existence of discrimination against women, so that the less they are in competition with men, the greater their attainment of senior positions.”

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