A Manageress? A Murse?

Despite our society’s crawling progress towards equalizing the treatment of men and women, one obstinate hurdle in its way is the sex-typing of jobs. The term refers to the cognitive process by which we consider certain jobs “men’s work”, and others “women’s”. But just how ingrained is it in our society?

When the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland ordered a report on the sex-typing of occupations in primary schools in 2002, the results that came back were rather alarming. Among the youngest children, the majority of the boys was of the opinion that eight occupations out of twenty-nine were for both sexes. In contrast, two thirds of the girls pointed to fifteen occupations. When they were asked about their own future career choices, however, their answers were strongly gender-biased. The haunting find of the research wasn’t that external influence shaped the children’s minds, but that its source could be traced back predominantly to their parents.

Where does this bias come from, then? Well, much of it can be attributed to sex role stereotypes, which link men to: “ambition, confidence, assertiveness, independence and objectivity”. On the other hand, women are thought of as “emotional, sensitive, neat and timid”. Hardly a fair balance. When Eva Shinar looked at sex-typing among college students, she came back with results that seemed to confirm this. The youth agreed that the world of work is more masculine than feminine, but women believed that, based on their characteristics, they should have access to more jobs than men are ready to relinquish to them. After all, the stereotypes that bolster sex-typing hardly portray multi-dimensional human beings, whether male or female. Moreover, they are only spurred on by the issue they perpetuate, which comes down to sex role standards. These three areas fasten the loop of imbalanced opportunities quite firmly in place.

The Big Bang

We can hardly blame partiality for the perception of sex-typing as a wellspring of implications for women. The American historian Samuel Cohn noticed that not only are women’s wages affected by occupational sex-typing, but that both patriarchal and economic reflections affect managers’ hiring decisions. How is it that they look at women through the prism of sex role standards? That is down to models conceived by human capital theorists from the 1950s onwards, who argued that women voluntarily choose to be full-time mothers and housewives. They went on to say that women forego the chance to be a part of the labor supply as paid employees, because they lack the time to acquire the necessary skills on the job.

That mind-boggling observation came down the men’s opinion that women have an innate flair for domestic tasks. However, as Cohn points out, there is no evidence to support the idea that women have higher turnover than men. In actuality, sex-typing pushes women into predesignated jobs that have a high saturation rate – leaving many of them with no choice but to stay at home. And given the modern-day climate, the idea of domestic obligations restricting the female labor supply is, for lack of a better word, preposterous.

Tracing Our Steps

As uncomfortable as it may be, we wouldn’t be able to fully assess the extent to which sex-typing prevails in our society, if we didn’t take a look at the role of organized male labor in reducing economic opportunities for women. In 1982, Alice Kessler-Harris uncovered the existence of anti-feminization campaigns among printers, iron workers, subway conductors and others, stating that sex-typing is essentially determined by management. If it weren’t, no matter how much they wanted to, men wouldn’t have had the labor strength to ban women from their trade.

This animosity stems from World War I, when women, shoved into the gaping occupational holes left behind by the men marching off to war, proved just how versatile they can be. In a CNN article devoted to these women, Belinda David pointed out that they not only slid into “men’s jobs”, but they trotted over to the battlefields as nurses, ambulance drivers and cooks. Moreover, while making up the Women’s Land Army, they faced wartime shortages of food and housing. After the war, furyover women “taking” jobs from men was ignited, despite the fact that they were responsible for upholding the economy. This has been well-documented in Netflix’s 2014 and 2015 documentaries Women at War 1914-1918 and Women at War 1939-1945.

Are We There Yet?

The ongoing tensions between the occupational interests of men and women, and the apparent oversight of what history has already proved about women’s tenaciousness, manifest themselves in the 2018 research carried out by Frontiers in Psychology. While workers perceived female leaders as equal in status, they didn’t consider them a threat to their own professional aspirations. This came down to the perception that women were disinterested in optimizing the control they were given – essentially, complacent. This notion comes back to sex role standards, with women seemingly not possessing the same ambition and assertiveness as men.

In contrast, when men have low status positions, they are thought to be going against gender-based expectations that would see them possess higher status than women. Like many things, this can be blamed on cultural forces, as is the case for Spain. There, professional women continue to emulate “masculine” behaviour because leadership roles are strongly male-typed.    

And so, there can be little talk of progress if the foundations of the issues we seek to address are not inspected. Before we can expect both genders to show empathy and a willingness to fight for equality, we have to understand why present-day inequality prevails. After all, as we have seen with the primary school children and their parents, it all stems from our households.

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