By Constance Hsiung
In the early 1990s, a popular “brain game” asked: the boy and his father were involved in a serious car accident and were both taken directly to the ambulance. The boy needs surgery and he is taken to the operating room. The surgeon enters the room and says, “I can’t operate on this boy: he’s my son.” How is that possible?
The explanation is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother, but since so few women were surgeons then – and indeed now – it was thought that few listeners would soon receive this answer. This is one example of a greater division of labor by gender: some jobs are mostly done by women and others by men. Although this form of gender segregation has been declining for more than half a century, it persists today even in occupations, where the representation of women has increased the most in recent decades. Modern examples are registered nurses, special education teachers and occupational therapists, more than 80% of whom are women. Similarly, men make up more than 80% of computer programmers, most engineers (such as aviation, electrical and electronics), and clergy. Such divisions are exacerbated when we also take into account technical work such as medical assistants and broadcasting and sound engineering techniques.
Recent sociological research has revealed an important explanation for this form of gender segregation: the ‘gender stereotype’ of certain skills. For example, it is widely believed that men are better at learning math and negotiating higher salaries, while women are better at caring for young children and mediating in social conflicts. The stronger such stereotypes, the more they reinforce the link between gender and gender composition in job skills requirements. The main reason for this model is clear: the more certain skills are linked to a particular gender, the more workers and employers will act on such associations. This means that jobs that require ‘more masculine’ skills hire, retain and attract more men, while those that require ‘more feminine’ skills hire, retain and attract more women.
In reality, however, many jobs today require masculinity and feminine skills. How it does combination affect job segregation by gender? If we follow the explanation of gender stereotypes discussed above, skills requirements should have the opposite effect on the gender composition of the workforce. This means that for women, men’s skills requirements should reduce their representation and women’s skills requirements should increase it. However, this is not what we notice in many professional jobs that are dominated by women, such as nurses, many therapists (e.g., physical, language), and preschool educators. These jobs place higher than average demands on both male and female skills: physical strength and helping and caring for others, respectively. However, the representation of women is increasing as the demands increase both skill types. What explains this relationship?
In my recent article Gender and societyI show that in these professional jobs, women dominate because of the demands of male physical strength occur together with feminine skills to help and care for others. In other words, as the demands on these women’s skills increase, so do the demands on men’s skills (and vice versa). However, the requirements for female skills are higher than for male skills. Women are included in these jobs because of women’s skill requirements, and they are not deterred by the requirements for men’s skills, even if they go beyond what is required by most other jobs.
My research shows that gender segregation in jobs stems from gender stereotypes about combinations male and female skills rather than regardless of any individual skill requirement. The reality is that both female and male skills are needed in jobs that are often employed by women.
The jobs I have studied are widely associated with women, in part because of their feminine skill requirements. But they need more physical strength than many jobs dominated by men with similar education and training! How can these skill requirements be reconciled with the widespread approach to these jobs as ‘female work’?
The more we know how these stereotypes work and are formed, the more likely we are to understand and achieve gender equality in employment.
Constance Hsiung is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. Her research interests include sociology of culture, gender and work.
Leave a Comment