Research Findings

Of women and men: A lifetime of segregation


June 20, 2019

That women and men tend to be employed in different occupations comes as no surprise. It is both common knowledge and a basic fact that goes by the name of occupational segregation. That even if there was no occupational segregation at all, still around half of all the overall segregation between women and men would remain at two critical junctures in their lives—the career- and family-building years and retirement—is somehow more surprising.

How did we come up with this fact about segregation over the life course in our recent article? We had to consider additional sources of segregation beyond just the occupations where women and men work. For example, we know that women tend to work for pay shorter hours than men. Call this source of gender differences “time segregation” and call the joint measurement of occupational and time segregation “market segregation.”

Next move on to the elephant in the room, or what is one of the most sex-segregated and sex-typical occupation, even if unpaid: looking after home and family or “homemaking.” To be sure, besides gainful employment in the market and working full time at home, there are other stations in life. Unemployment, being a student, and retirement stand out. Call the measurement of gender differences in these stations “economic segregation.”

It may seem natural to think that the sum of economic and market segregation can gauge the amount of overall “gender segregation’’ in society. Yet, is computing the sum of economic and market segregation as simple as adding two and two? It turns out that the sum is feasible and simple if the measuring instrument can split segregation neatly into additive components.

This sort of “Matryoshka’’ nesting doll strategy takes us from occupational and time segregation to market segregation; and from market and economic segregation to overall gender segregation in the key societal dimensions related to women’s and men’s labor force attachment.

If we were to leave our research here, we would be far from an accurate assessment of gender inequality, however. This is because gender arrangements change, sometimes quite drastically, over a person’s lifetime.

How then do we measure the changing and evolving nature of gender segregation as people age? And how can we do it without confounding age-related shifts with changes that originate in the experiences of successive cohorts or in historical events?

To our knowledge, no publicly available longitudinal dataset is large and long enough to facilitate this study. It turns out, though, that with only two conditions we can use what is called the M index (the Mutual Information Index) to identify segregation by age net of cohort and period effects. The conditions are: cross-sections of data at two or more points in time (the more the better for the estimates’ variability) and age information.

My co-authors and I used the M index and data (21 Labour Force Surveys from the United Kingdom ranging from 1993 to 2013 and ages 16 to 69, inclusive) to accurately gauge gender segregation and its components (occupational, time, and economic segregation) as people age. With these resources we conclude that when women and men are in their mid-30s, differences in homemaking and part-time paid work carve up the time divide that is responsible for almost half of their overall segregation. Thirty years later in the lifespan, retirement takes hold at a different pace across gender lines and accounts for over half of all segregation.

Is this an accounting exercise? To be frank, yes it is. But it is one that tells a story of women and men and their lifetime of segregation. The story has two parts and goes like this.

First, the life course passes through three phases, each characterized by a gendered tradeoff between occupations and the rest of the sources of segregation. In the prime childbearing years, economic and time differences grow between women and men. Simultaneously, though, women and men in employment converge somewhat in their occupational distributions. When children are school age, the pattern reverses because many women increase their hours of paid work in feminized occupations. In the post-retirement years the few women and men that remain employed work few hours in heavily gender-typical occupations.

Second, women play the main character in the story of lifetime segregation because the evolving contours of segregation pivot around two extremes in their behavior: opting for low-paying jobs and becoming full-time homemakers when the first child is born; or having access to higher-paying jobs, hiring childcare, and remaining in full-time employment. In between these two extremes there is a rich set of heterogeneous responses to the pressures and quandaries posed by major life and work events. These stand in stark contrast with the large homogeneity and constancy in men’s state of full-time employment, regardless of family-formation pressures.

In short, the multiple sources of segregation are interconnected synchronously and diachronically. This is because key events in the life and work domains are age-graded and take place simultaneously in gendered, separate, and often “greedy” and competing realms of life. That is, you either accumulate work time and get promoted when the time comes, or you do not. You either become involved in intensive parenting when your children are young, or you do not. You either retire from paid work together with your partner, or you do not. Ultimately, time is yet another scarce resource in the gender system.

Our framework for researching gender segregation and its components can be easily applied to a variety of situations, like comparisons over time and across countries. Moreover, the framework can be enriched with new information on fields of study and the division of household chores.

Read more

Daniel Guinea-Martin, Ricardo Mora and Javier Ruiz-Castillo. “The evolution of gender segregation over the life course” in American Sociological Review 2018.

Image: Vimar Picture via Wikimedia Commons (BY-SA 4.0)

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