Women’s Economic Opportunities in the U.S. Today
Do you think sexism is a thing of the past?
Do you think that affirmative action and feminist thinking have finally opened up all the jobs in America to women?
Women’s economic opportunities depend on the kind of jobs that are open to them. The jobs that are open to women are not that different today than they were in the 1920’s. In some ways, it is almost as if affirmative action and feminism never existed.
The table below lists the percent female of occupations in the United States in 2019 – the most recent year for which data is available. There is a lot of information in that table. I will go through the details slowly and carefully below.
The general sense of that table is that the jobs that are male and female today are the jobs that were male and female nearly 100 years ago. Women take care of children, serve as nurses, do sewing, do clerical work, work as bank tellers and work in jobs that make them subordinate to men. Men get the most prestigious jobs in the occupational pyramid. They work in science and engineering. They completely dominate blue collar occupations. There are jobs that are 93% female. There are jobs that are 2% female. It is not the case that everyone of every gender can work in whatever job they want to work in. There is a male world and there is a female world. Women take the jobs on the female side.
This is not to say there has been zero opening up of the economy whatsoever. Women have made some inroads. Management used to be a nearly 100% male occupation. 40% of managers are women now. The obstacles to women get tougher as they move up the corporate ladder. 40% of all managers may be women but only 28% of chief executives are women. Nowadays, 40% of all physicians are women; physicians also used to be nearly all male. Nursing is 89% female. Once again, the opportunities close to women the farther up the status ladder they climb. 36% of all lawyers are women. 90% of all paralegals are women. While the top jobs in America are hardly 50-50 male-female, there has been real progress in increasing access to high status occupations. Men still have more opportunity, but women have gotten a piece of the pie.
But outside of the elite jobs, traditional gender roles still apply. Men get historically male jobs. Women get historically female jobs.
What’s going on here? Essentially women receive lower wages than men. In 2018, women were earning 81 cents to the male dollar. Women get hired for jobs in which low wages matter. A lot of occupations need cheap female workers.
Low wages don’t matter under three conditions.
1. When the occupation is based on superstar performance and cost be damned. When you hire Christopher Nolan to make a movie, you don’t do it because he works cheap. You do it because he makes movies that make millions and millions of dollars. You hire him for his unique talents. Any occupation where talent matters more than cost does not need to hire cheap labor. If sexist men choose to hire other men because men are “more talented” (cough cough), there are no cheap labor pressures to make them act differently.
2. When company expenses are dominated by machinery and raw materials, then employers tend to go light on hiring cheap labor. In an office, nearly 100% of the expenses are worker’s salaries. If a woman office worker can be paid 81 cents instead of a male dollar, that is a very substantial cost savings overall. In a factory, management has to pay for equipment, energy, raw material, and supplies. Worker’s wages are just one component of the budget. Using women does not lead to as great a reduction of cost as would be occurring if salaries were 100% of the budget. So in blue collar settings, where there are a lot of material costs, employers tend to hire men.
3. Cost efficiency or no cost efficiency, men reserve the best jobs for themselves. So in any hierarchy, the percent male goes up at the higher levels.
So what does this mean for women’s economic opportunities today? Let’s look at the jobs that are open to men and women and see how these factors open up some jobs – but not all jobs - to women but not all jobs to women.
As we saw in management, medicine and law, higher ranked positions have more men. Lower ranked positions have more women. Men are CEOs; women are managers. Men are doctors; women are nurses. Men are lawyers; women are paralegals.
Nearly all of the budget in daycare centers and elementary schools goes to salaries. Cheap labor is essential here. These jobs are female.
Bank tellers, librarians and clerical workers (office workers) are basically female. There are few expenses here besides salaries. Cheap labor matters.
The gender division of labor in restaurants is odd. You would think this would be an all-female sector. Traditionally, women do the cooking and meal preparation in the home. In restaurants, it does not work out that way. The primary cost in most restaurant budgets is not labor. It is actually food. In many ways, a restaurant is just a grocery store. It sells you groceries at higher prices than you pay at the supermarket because the staff has done things to the food. However, it still employs a lot of labor. Restaurants are somewhat intermediate between an all-labor setting like a school and a heavy raw materials setting like a factory.
As a result, there are a lot of men in the restaurant world, even though women do the cooking at home. 78% of chefs and head cooks are men. 58% of cooks are men. 41% of food prep workers are men. Note that the lower you go down the status ranking, the more female the jobs become.
(There is one exception I don’t understand. 79% of dishwashers are male. If someone wants to explain that one to me, I would be eternally grateful. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The gender composition of factory work depends on how much raw materials and machinery is involved. Light manufacture is female. Heavy manufacture is male.
Sewing machine operators tend to be female. You might think this is because women work on sewing machines at home. But remember, women also cook at home. This did not give women any special access to jobs as chef. Garment sweatshops are all about the labor costs. This is why manufacturers go to Laos or the Philippines to set up their sweatshops. They want to hire the cheapest women on the entire planet. Sweatshops are also used in light electronics assembly. These settings have more expensive raw materials (printed circuit boards) than do garment factories. So these settings have a higher percentage of males.
Factory workers in general are 70% male. If you go to settings with heavy machinery, the worksites become nearly all male. 89% of chemical plant workers are male. 94% of machinists are male.
Remember that physicians and lawyers tend to be male. These are occupations where performance matters more than costs. You want your doctor to save your life; you or your insurance company will pay whatever bills come out of this. You want your lawyer to win your case.Hopefully, the settlement proceeds will pay the lawyer’s bills.
Only 20% of clergy are women. Religious institutions do not try to get the cheapest religious leaders they can find. They often pay religious leaders very well. Clergy are supposed to inspirational. They are supposed to give sermons and guidance that everyone enjoys. They are supposed to be your source of spiritual strength when you face the crises and tragedies of life. Churches, synagogues, mosques and temples are all non-profit institutions. Costs don’t matter. Following the strictures of religious teaching does matter. Control of these institutions is often vested in men; there are few economic forces that would alter this balance of power.
Engineers are generally male. Engineering is another occupation which emphasizes brilliant performance rather than the use of cheap labor. Many engineering jobs are in firms that use a lot of machinery and raw material. Software development uses less machinery and raw material than does say mechanical engineering. All engineering occupations are predominantly male. There are however more women in software development than in mechanical engineering.
93% of airline pilots are male. Labor is only one component of the budget of airline companies. Jet fuel, the planes themselves and replacement parts represent massive components of the overall budget.
Both construction workers and repair people tend to be male. The people who build houses tend to be male. When was the last time a woman fixed your air conditioner? When was the last time a woman fixed your car? Construction and repair are machinery-oriented occupations that use a lot of raw material. Think about all of the physical stuff that is used to build houses and office buildings.
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So what is the bottom line here?
Women are just not breaking into a lot of new occupations. The economics of most occupations does not change very much over time. Because of that, the gender composition of most occupations does not change very much over time. There are a few occupations that do switch and become more diverse. Business executive has received a lot of attention. But the exciting changes that characterize the handful of settings where progress is occurring mask the general stasis and stagnation of gender opportunities in the rest of the American economy.
Fortunately, some of the occupations that women are allowed to work in are increasing in size. As our populations age, there is increasing demand for health care. Many health care jobs are female. In the engineering world, heavy manufacturing is declining and information science is growing. That increases those branches of the engineering world that are more likely to hire women.
Generally, though, the more things don’t change, the more things don’t change. Yesterday’s newspaper is still good.
What will it take to get women into the remaining sectors of the economy? We need more women at the top, in the CEO positions. Males executives hire men because they are convinced a man is a more qualified worker. Bringing in women at the top is one of the few methods of insuring that female job candidates are adequately respected and have their credentials taken seriously when the hard decisions are made as to who to hire.
For More Information
The statistics on jobs came from Labor Force Statistics From the Current Population Survey. 2019. Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.htm
The statistics on gendered pay differentials came from "Women had higher median earnings than men in relatively few occupations in 2018". Economics Daily. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved January 15, 2020.
For more on the determinants of women’s economic opportunities, see my Race Gender and Discrimination at Work.