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Stereotypes Are Deepening Gender Divisions at Work. How Can We Stop This?

Senior Policy Scholar at The McDonough School of Business Raffini Family Professor of Management at The McDonough School of Business

Though general participation in the U.S. workforce has achieved gender equality in terms of men and women (women are exactly 50 percent of the non-farm U.S. workforce as of January 2019), we are far from parity within actual jobs.

Gender segregation of jobs is so high that roughly one half of the entire workforce would need to migrate across gender lines (men moving to female-dominated jobs and women moving to male-dominated jobs) to achieve gender equality in occupations.

However, such gender migration is entirely unlikely, not because of actual differences in competencies of men and women, but because of the labels we as a society are putting on these jobs and how such labeling creates unsubstantiated expectations about the jobs and further entrenches stereotypes about the competencies of men and women.

The Dangers of Labeling

Statistically, there are jobs that are predominantly held by men, and others that are predominantly held by women. To a lesser extent, this gender segregation characterizes whole industries—for example, manufacturing and law enforcement are filled with mostly men; education and health care are comprised of mostly women.

The problems that arise from this segregation are extensive.

First, visibly seeing such lopsided gender distributions further reinforces the myth of men and women having mutually exclusive characteristics (that only men are assertive, independent, and strong, while only women are nurturing, creative and collaborative). Second, these gender stereotypes are projected onto the jobs themselves, creating barriers to entry for, and obstacles to advancement of, individuals trying to cross gendered lines in the workforce.

The ‘Pink Collar’ Problem

Trendy nomenclature categorizing female-dominated jobs and industries as “pink collar work” only serves to more deeply entrench this unnecessary divide. Dividing the sexes (with assumptions about inherent strengths and weaknesses) and the labor market makes it easy to further devalue, rather than celebrate, that which is feminine.

Historically, an influx of women into a job leads to its devaluation.

Take education as an example: At present, this is a female-dominated industry marked by low wages and status; but historically, in colonial times through the early 19th century, teachers were primarily men, and the profession was afforded greater status and pay accordingly.

It was only when the “common school” era arose and public school was being made more readily available that the demand for teachers exceeded the supply, and women stepped in to fill that void. Female teachers were then met with lower status and wages than their male predecessors enjoyed.

This demographic shifting, whereby women are denied entry into a field, but later enter an industry en masse to fill a gap, is nearly always mirrored by a lower status and pay than what was enjoyed by men in the field.   

This same phenomenon also happened with bank tellers, health care workers and office workers, and it will continue so long as we as a society continue to imbue jobs with gendered stereotypes based on majority membership and stigmatize such as pink collar labor.

Trendy nomenclature categorizing female-dominated jobs and industries as “pink collar work” only serves to entrench the gender divide.

Are Gender Divisions Real or Imagined?

Despite a history of shifts in gender demographics in certain roles, many see the current gender segregation of the workplace as a “natural” representation of men’s and women’s competencies, because they project gendered stereotypes of who occupies the job onto the nature of the job itself.

Men are believed to be strong, independent and assertive, and thus their social role is to protect and provide, rendering the perception that they are naturally better at certain jobs. Women are believed to be warm, communal, and helpful, so their social role is to care and comfort.

But how much of these gendered differences is true, and how much is simply culturally ingrained, socially enforced custom?  

Gender stereotypes—socially shared beliefs that men and women excel in different roles because of different traits—both reinforce, and are reinforced by, this division of labor.  

Because men numerically dominate in industries such as manufacturing and construction, our stereotypes that men are independent and have a predilection toward building things is reinforced by our everyday observations and experiences. Similarly, the fact that most teachers and nurses are women reinforces our belief that women are naturally better at caring for others.  

The Illusion of Truth

But these alleged gender differences—traits that are supposed to be more characteristic of men (confident, independent, risk-seeking) or women (helpful, caring, friendly)—are mostly hyperbole, our research shows.

The stereotypes of the differences between men and women far exceed the reality of these differences. Recent meta-analyses of decades of scientific work on gender differences across multiple domains have found few meaningful differences—and vastly more gender similarity.  

In our own research, which digs into the disconnect between perceived and actual gender differences, we found strong evidence that discourse alone perpetuates beliefs that gender differences are real.  

This illusion of truth is why it is so problematic to continue to reinforce these dichotomies by insisting upon gendered categorization of the jobs people choose to pursue.

Switching Job Fields

Just as when women were pulled into previously male-dominated organizations during World War II because there was work to be done and fewer men to do it, demographic and technological trends are creating similar forces, pulling men and women to cross traditional gender lines.  

Women are being encouraged to enter STEM fields and the military, while men have opportunities in education and health care. However, although demographic workforce shifts are occurring, entrenched social roles and stereotypes are slower to evolve.

Interestingly, there may be some asymmetries for traditionally female-dominated jobs, between how people view their own fit and how others view their fit for a role. Based on preliminary evidence we have collected, our research suggests that people are generally more accepting of men moving into female-dominated jobs, than women moving into male-dominated jobs. Respondents in our study were significantly more likely to endorse positive masculine stereotypes of men entering nursing and negative feminine stereotypes of women entering the military.

But until we remove these stereotypes—and stop labeling certain professions as pink jobs—we will never succeed in having effective gender migration in the workforce.

Emily T. Amanatullah

Senior Policy Scholar at The McDonough School of Business

Emily T. Amanatullah is a senior policy scholar at the McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University.  

Catherine H. Tinsley

Raffini Family Professor of Management at The McDonough School of Business

Catherine H. Tinsley is the Raffini Family Professor of Management at the McDonough School of Business, and Faculty Director of the Georgetown University Women’s Leadership Institute

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