Over the last half century, American women have gradually entered lucrative and prestigious occupations, one obvious sign of a reduction in gender inequality. The feminization of those occupations, however, may in turn reduce their average pay levels. In this research, I examined trends in the effect of occupational feminization on occupational pay over several decades in the U.S. and explored the mechanisms underlying these trends.
Using data on individuals and occupations from the U.S. Census (1960-2010) and the American Community Surveys (2001-2015), I find, similar to previous studies, that in recent decades and especially from 1980 onwards, a growing number of women in the U.S. have reached the top rungs of the occupational ladder (see figure 1). This shift has been fuelled by women’s growing educational attainment, which, together with the rising economic premium to education, has resulted in a decline in the gender wage gap.
Figure 1: Trends in female proportion in occupations by levels (tertiles) of average occupational pay
Due to these changes, the negative association between female percentage in occupations and occupational pay levels has declined over time (see blue line in figure 2). This decline is indeed most apparent from 1980 onward, a period in which U.S. women witnessed a significant improvement in their occupational standing. However, this is also a period in which occupations requiring higher education enjoyed a large wage premium – and many of these are occupations that became more feminized. Once we take into account these changes, and control for workers’ education as well as the average level of education in occupations, the trend is actually reversed. That is, the negative net effect of percentage female on occupational pay actually intensifies over time (see red line in figure 2). These two opposite processes reflect the upward occupational mobility of women, on the one hand, and the consequences of occupational feminization, on the other.
Figure 2: Trends in the effect of gender composition (% female) on the average pay of occupations, before and after accounting for education
Education plays two major roles in explaining the divergent trends. Women have acquired higher levels of education and entered occupations requiring higher education. Simultaneously, economic rewards to education (both to having higher education and to working in occupations with higher educational requirements) have grown substantially. Since these developments conceal the trend toward increasingly devaluing occupations in which women work, the intensification of the devaluation effect is revealed only after accounting for both individuals’ education and occupations’ educational requirements.
An example of this can be seen by comparing industrial and electrical engineers. Both occupations demand high education levels (more than 70% of workers in both occupations in 2010 had at least a bachelor’s degree), and both occupations have enjoyed a higher than average wage premium over the period studied. In both occupations, the percentage of women in 1960 was negligible (2% and 1%, respectively). Fifty years later, still only 10% of electrical engineers were women, compared to 19%—almost double—among industrial engineers. The devaluation effect is not easily observed because the process of feminization was not followed by an absolute wage reduction among industrial engineers, but rather, by lower wage growth relative to comparable occupations like electrical engineering. Thus, controlling for education is essential to revealing the devaluation process. Indeed, we see that while electrical engineers enjoyed an increase of 25% in average wage during the period studied, industrial engineers enjoyed an increase of less than 19%.
The findings demonstrate the relationship between two opposing processes, both with implications for gender inequality research and related policy. They provide concrete evidence that gender inequality operates differently at the individual level than at the structural level. The findings also highlight the distinction between individual and structural forms of gender inequality, and stress the significance of the latter. The danger is therefore that the importance of gender for economic inequality in the labor market will be less visible, less amenable to assessment, and not sufficiently acknowledged.
Hadas Mandel, “A Second Look at the Process of Occupational Feminization and Pay Reduction in Occupations,” Demography 2018
Image: George Joch / courtesy Argonne National Laboratory, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)