Does Believing in "Different Yet Equal" Propagate Inequality? On Occupational Segregation

One of the most radical changes of our generation has been the increase in the number of women who earn degrees of higher education. In fact, according to the data from the most recent Census of India in 2011, there was a 116% increase in the number of women who held a bachelor’s degrees compared to 2001. Moreover, the proportion of women technology graduates more than tripled. However, despite more women entering the workforce at every level, there are still 29 jobs where at least 97% of the workers are men. All these jobs involve technical or manual work, like computer control programers.This disproportionate overrepresentation of men in manual labor is known as horizontal segregation (Charles, Grusky, 2004, p.15). As the term horizontal suggests, there is no hierarchy between manual and non-manual work: one is not intrinsically better than the other. Even though these jobs are on an “equal” playing field, horizontal segregation has a significant impact on both the individual and the economy, namely a mismatch between skills and labor market opportunities (Mairhuber, 2009, p.9) and a reduction in innovation and productivity that results from a segregated workspace. But perhaps the most significant impact of horizontal occupational segregation is the loss of income for women: the top five highest paying jobs are male dominated.These economic concerns make analyzing the reasons behind this pattern of occupational segregation essential.

Traditional economic theory suggests that horizontal segregation is inevitable because men and women have innate, stable, and unchanging characteristics that make them different. This theory is known as gender essentialism.While it is evident that this theory is outdated and can sustain gender stereotypes, authors Charles and Grusky argue that gender essentialism is the main reason why horizontal sex segregation exists in society. However, they make one crucial distinction from traditional economic theory: they state that even though gender essentialism is not accurate, the mere belief and propagation of this theory through media and other sources, results in implicit biases that in turn results in this pattern of segregation. Therefore, it is the internalization of the idea that women excel in tasks that require interpersonal communication, whereas men are more suited to tasks that require knowledge of objects. This internalisation is likely to lead to women being overrepresented in service-sector jobs.

Believing in gender essentialism affects the overall market structure by altering the demand and supply of labor, which results in occupational segregation.Employers, on the demand side, may be affected by gender essentialism even before the interviewing process because they may subconsciously create a job description with a gender in mind. For instance, having a woman for the position of an elementary school teacher. While assessing the potential applicants’ curricula vitae, the employer’s implicit bias can result in different reviews based solely on gender. Research suggests that both male and female curricula vitae reviewers were more likely to hire a male job applicant, and were likely to believe that he had more experience than a female job applicant with an identical record. The second factor that creates gender based differences in the demand of labor is statistical discrimination. This is the idea of average differences between men and women. So even if a man is more nurturing than the average woman, he may be rejected from a job as an elementary teacher because of the idea that an average woman is more caring than an average man.

How gender essentialism affects the supply side is more complicated because it not only involves societal judgments about being a woman pursuing a gender atypical job but also about being a manual laborer in general. This influences the total number of people who apply for such jobs. The most straightforward way in which the supply of labor is impacted is that fewer women choose manual- labor jobs because it does not pay well enough and they may also feel that men may be better for this field.Even if a woman decides to pursue a career in the manual sector, these jobs are male-dominated. Because of the prevailing attitudes and perception of a woman’s competence in manual labour the woman’s coworkers may tease and harass her making her want to quit, propagating the gender segregation. The way in which the supply side contributes to horizontal occupational segregation highlights that society’s perception often takes precedence over an individual’s ideologies when it comes to cultural models like gender essentialism. As a result, any solution that is proposed needs to tackle the problem at an institutional rather than an individual level.

So how do we reduce horizontal occupational segregation? Unfortunately, the answer to changing the way institutions function is slow and complicated. While changing the ideologies of the current adult population may be challenging, we can positively influence young children, to reduce occupational segregation in the future. Integrating gender neutral uniforms in early school curricula could prevent rigid gender-roles from developing. Parents and teachers could also make an attempt to use gender-neutral vocabulary because using the pronoun “they” while referring to firefighters or engineers can restrict children from associating these occupations with men. Primary schools could also have guest talks from women who work in male-dominated fields to serve as a role-model for young children. Moreover, research shows that positive female role-models in media could even eliminate negative stereotypes about women. But most importantly, as a society, we must make a conscious effort to teach children that gender is insignificant when it comes to what they can achieve.

Pratishta Natrajan