A funny thing happened on the way to gender equality

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A funny thing happened on the way to gender equality

by Marianne Cooper on Monday, March 14, 2011 - 2:30am

Since the 1960s, American society has made sweeping progress in the march towards gender equality.  Women’s employment has dramatically increased, gender discrimination in employment and education has became illegal, and women now surpass men in rates of college graduation.  Many herald these massive changes as revolutionary.

However, when Stanford sociology professor Paula England sat down to investigate this gender revolution she discovered something puzzling.  The big changes that have occurred have gone mostly in one direction – women moved into jobs, fields, and activities that were previously limited to men.  But few changes have happened in the opposite direction – few men have moved into traditionally female jobs or domestic roles.

In her recent talk, “The Gender Revolution: Uneven and Stalled,” sponsored by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford, England pointed out that since the 1970s women have increasingly majored in previously male-dominated fields like business, marketing, and accounting.  Yet, there has been little increase in men majoring in traditionally female fields like English, education, and sociology.

Women have also drastically increased their representation in formerly male-dominated professional degrees, getting law degrees, MBAs and MDs in large numbers.  In 2007, England noted, women made up 49% of those receiving MD degrees.  By contrast, there has been no marked increase in the number of men pursuing degrees in traditionally female fields like library science, social work, and nursing.

England’s explanation for this one-way kind of gender change is society’s devaluation of traditionally female jobs and activities.  Research has consistently shown, she said, that on average, female-dominated occupations pay less than jobs with a higher proportion of men even when factors like education and skill level are taken into account.

Parents are still more comfortable giving boys Legos than dolls. Image source: iStock/Reno12

This devaluation also plays out in the personal realm.  As England pointed out, parents are more comfortable giving girls “boy” toys like Legos than they are giving dolls to their sons.  And girls have dramatically increased their participation in sports while boys have not flocked to cheerleading or ballet.

England argued that our society’s economic and cultural devaluation of things defined as feminine means that “men lose money and suffer cultural disapproval when they choose traditionally female-dominated fields.  Consequently, they have little incentive to transgress gender boundaries.”  In contrast, there are economic and social incentives that push women to enter traditionally male-dominated fields.  As a result, England said the gender revolution has meant that, “women’s lives have changed more than men’s.”

What’s more, England pointed out, is that college educated, middle-class women have made greater strides in entering previously male-dominated occupations than less educated, working-class women.  In fact, working-class jobs like plumbing, construction, and truck driving are almost as segregated by gender as they were in 1950, she said.

England attributed these class differences among women to working-class women’s ability to improve their prospects by moving from lower status, traditionally female jobs like child care worker to higher status, traditionally female jobs like teaching.  Consequently, working-class women had the option to move up, so to speak, without needing to cross gendered boundaries and integrate blue-collar jobs.  In contrast, in order for middle-class women to make strides they had to enter higher status, male-dominated professions like law, medicine, and academia.  Thus, middle-class jobs have become significantly more integrated than working-class ones.

For England, the uneven nature of the gender revolution with women’s lives changing more than men’s points to the uneven progress of different feminist goals.  The part of the feminist message that called for women to have equal access to jobs and education has been successful, she said, and accounts for much of what people refer to as the gender revolution.  However, the part of feminism challenging the devaluation of traditionally female activities and characteristics has made little progress.  “The result,” England said, “is persistently low rewards for women who remain focused on mothering or in traditionally female jobs and little incentive for men to make the gender revolution a two way street.”

“There is nothing inevitable about positive change,” England said, noting that progress towards gender equality has stalled in some areas.  For example, she explained that the rate of women’s employment stopped growing in the 1990s and that the narrowing of the gender pay gap has slowed in recent years. The desegregation of college majors stalled by the mid-1980s, and occupational desegregation slowed after 1990. To address the uneven and stalled nature of the gender revolution, England urged the audience to examine both institutional and cultural roadblocks that continue to prevent gender equality.  “To revitalize change,” England concluded, “renewed feminist organizing is needed.”

England's talk is part of the Clayman Institute's strategic focus on moving "Beyond the Stalled Revolution" and is available to view online. The paper, “The Gender Revolution: Uneven and Stalled,” was published in Gender & Society