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Author: Sarah Ford

Is Your Professor a Hypocrite? Gender Inequality in Occupations

Even in 2011, 50 years after the second wave of the feminist movement, there exist dramatic gender inequalities in the workplace. At this point, women and men participate roughly equally in paid labor, but the types of work men and women do are dramatically different. In this piece Sarah Michele Ford explores gender inequality in the workforce and asks are sociologists any better?

The feminists have won! 50 years after the second wave of the feminist movement, women make up just under 50% of the workforce!

Wait… does this necessarily mean that we have reached a point of equality in employment? Sadly, the answer is no. Across the board, men who are employed full time earn 17.6% more than women who are doing comparable work (Bureau of Labor Statistics); these differences are even more pronounced when we start taking into account differences across racial/ethnic lines.

 

But, you might argue, 82% is a pretty good number! Compared to 1983, when women earned 66.6% of what men did, or 1998, when the salient number was 76.3% (“Highlights of Women’s Earnings 1998”). Women’s earnings are improving!

Women earn substantially less than do men, at all levels of education, from 91% of what men do teaching elementary school to only 77% of what men earn at the postsecondary level.

It’s true. Women’s earnings are improving. But if we dig deeper, we see that the number of women in the workforce or pay across the board don’t really tell the whole story. As an example, let’s look at gender inequalities in education. Overall, women make up 75% of those employed in educational and library occupations. Women are overrepresented as preschool through high school teachers, but in decreasing levels; at the post- secondary level, there are more men than women employed in educational occupations. Despite all this, though, women earn substantially less than do men, at all levels of education, from 91% of what men do teaching elementary school to only 77% of what men earn at the postsecondary level.

 

This trend is not unique to educational occupations. The healthcare field is 75% female, but women are vastly over-represented in support roles such as dental hygienists (95% female) and nurses (91% female) and underrepresented in roles such as dentists (26% female) and physicians and surgeons (32.3% female). If we look more generally at professional occupations, we find community and social services inhabited predominantly by women (64% female) but computer/math professions and architecture and engineering overwhelmingly dominated by men (27% and 13% respectively).

Sociology, as you have already learned, takes these kinds of inequalities very seriously and tries to understand and address them. Given this, you would expect the discipline of sociology to put it’s money where it’s mouth is and be very egalitarian, right?

WRONG! Sociology, too, is stratified by gender. Philip N. Cohen has addressed this very question on the Family Inequality blog. To quickly summarize his article:

  • Women currently account for about 50% of Sociology PhDs.
  • There is a gender imbalance in the discipline, though, because for a long time (until the mid-1980s) MANY more men got PhDs in sociology than did women.
  • Within the discipline, women are much more likely to be involved in research and teaching areas like sex and gender, marriage and the family, inequalities, and family, children and youth.
  • Again within the discipline, women are under-represented in positions of power. In this instance “positions of power” is measured by membership on the editorial boards of major journals.

How can this still be happening in 2011? And how can it be happening in an academic discipline that is so explicitly committed to equality? There are a number of societal factors that could be contributing to continued gender inequalities.

  1. Sexism. Yes, it still exists, and yes, women are still discriminated against on the basis of their gender.
  2. The “Mommy Tax”. Anna Crittenden explains in her book The Price of Motherhood (and in interviews about the book) that women are penalized financially for raising children. This includes reducing workloads when children are born and young as well as taking time off to tend to children’s needs as they grow up.
  3. Socialization. As we know, gender socialization begins before an infant is born and continues throughout the life course. Gender norms are ingrained in us, and some of those norms tell us that women “should” be responsible for caring for children and the family while men “should” be involved in more instrumental pursuits. This translates to career choice later on – early childhood and elementary education majors are overwhelmingly female, while male education majors are concentrated in secondary education courses.

Sociologists come from and remain enmeshed in the same social systems that produce these inequalities.

Why are sociologists falling prey to this, too? Simply put, sociologists are part of society, too. As such, we come from and remain enmeshed in the same social systems that produce these inequalities. Sociologists, both male and female (and, in the interests of full disclosure, I am a female sociologist) can fall prey to gender discrimination. They can be subject to the mommy tax, and they are certainly socialized into the same norms and values as the rest of society. Women are steered towards carework; female sociologists trend towards the study of carework. Is it really all that different?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pick up my daughter from school.

Dig Deeper:

  1. How have gender inequalities in the workplace changed since the middle of the 20th century? How do you think that workplace inequalities will change by the middle of the 21st century?
  2. What explanation for these inequalities do you find most convincing? Why?
  3. What are your career aspirations? Using the data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, assess the level of gender segregation in your chosen field.
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