When an Occupation Becomes Female-Dominated, Pay Declines

During any debate about the gender pay gap, one argument will eventually emerge: women make less than men because they choose lower-paying jobs. But what if it turns out that women aren’t so much choosing low-paying jobs as working at jobs that are low-paid precisely because there are more women in those occupations? If that sounds far-fetched, one study, recently discussed at The Upshot in The New York Times, might change your mind. Researchers analyzed 50 years of U.S. Census data and found that pay drops when professions move from predominantly male to female – in short, if women do a job, it’s likely to be low-paid, for no other reason than that women’s work is undervalued.

grace hopper

(Photo Credit: public.resource.org/Flickr)

First, some background: men earn more than women in every industry, but women are more likely than men to hold jobs that pay less. They’re more likely to be paralegals, 87 percent of whom are female, for example, and less likely to be partners in a law firm, 68 percent of whom are male. This explains why there’s such a discrepancy between the controlled and uncontrolled gender pay gaps in PayScale’s report, Inside the Gender Pay Gap; the uncontrolled gap of 74 cents on the dollar reflects data on all women and all men, while the controlled gap of 97 cents on the dollar compares only women and men with similar job titles, education, and experience.

The larger uncontrolled gap is because of the jobs men and women are more likely to hold:

Women’s Work Is Underpaid

Researchers Paula England of New York University, Asaf Levanon of the University of Haifa in Israel, and Paul Allison of the University of Pennsylvania analyzed Census data from 1950 to 2000 to test two theories about why occupations with more women than men pay less than those with more men than women. One theory, called the “queuing view” by researchers, posits that pay affects the proportion of women in an occupation; the other says the opposite, that proportion of women affects pay, “owing to devaluation of work done by women.”

Ultimately, the evidence came down on the side of the devaluation view, meaning that occupations with more women pay less because they’re female-dominated.

Still skeptical?

“A striking example is to be found in the field of recreation — working in parks or leading camps — which went from predominantly male to female from 1950 to 2000,” writes Claire Cain Miller at The Upshot. “Median hourly wages in this field declined 57 percentage points, accounting for the change in the value of the dollar, according to a complex formula used by Professor Levanon. The job of ticket agent also went from mainly male to female during this period, and wages dropped 43 percentage points.”

Other occupations saw similar effects, including designers, whose wages dropped 34 percentage points when women dominated the profession, and biologists, who experienced an 18-point drop. Cain Miller points out, however, that when computer programming became male-dominated, instead of women’s work as it was in Admiral Grace Hopper’s days, pay increased.

The researchers point to gender bias as a primary factor in the decline, saying that the jobs in question appear to require less skill and be less valuable, from an employer’s point of view, once more women hold them.

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