Gender inequality in the US has gone through phases of change in the last five decades. The inequality in composition, type of work and wages between men and women is due to a number of factors. These varied explanations arise from varying situations existing at different periods. Researchers have viewed the problem from varied angles as well. There are a number of literature from the past to the present on this issue. A survey of the literatures allows us to divide the various explanations and analysis of gender inequalities in labor force into a few categories. We have viewed these from multiple angles, social, economic, political and even organizational. We have found that the state has a widespread role in influencing most of these factors that cause inequality. In the following sections, we discuss these various determinants of gender inequality in labor force, in the context of USA, over the years.
In section II, we have discussed the changes that have occurred in the occupational structure and gender inequality over time in the US labor market. The various explanations for the existence of gender segregation in the labor market are discussed in section III and we conclude our discussion in section IV.
- Trends in Gender Inequality in US Labor Force
The male-female wage gap in the US had risen dramatically since 1970. Prior to that, the ratio of female wages to that of male wages remained around 60% for a long time. The difference was quite high.The rise in women’s earning as a percentage of men’s earning since 1955 is depicted in Figure 1. From the figure, we can clearly observe how the ratio has picked up from 1970s. There had been a sharp rise in the ‘90s. After that, rise in the wage ratio or the fall in the wage gap was quite steady.
Figure 1 Gender Earnings Ratio
There has been a significant rise in female participation in the labor force as well, since 1970. The percentage of women in US labor force increased from 39% in 1970 to 47% in 2010. The percentage of adult women entering the labor force increased from 44% in 1970 to 58% in 2010. This is depicted in Table 1.
The percentage of female wages to male wages was around 60% for a number of decades before 1970. From the ‘70s the rate started picking up at a good pace.(Blau & Kahn, 1994). This is indicative of the fact that an increasing number of women are moving towards male dominated segments of the job market. Currently, women’s earnings are around 81% of men’s earnings. Women are moving towards equality in wages at a steady pace in the job market. We can hope that in decades to come the wages will be more equal. In this section, we discuss the various factors behind the gender inequality that still exist in the US job market. The study is based on the research conducted by scholars at different period of time focusing on different aspects of occupational gender inequality existing in the US.
- Existence of Gender Inequality in the Household Division of Work: Society has determined the role of men and women in the family from the ancient times. The roles have little changed with time. Even today the major portion of household work is performed by the women. Some household duties are thought to be women’s responsibility alone. This has made female members of the society take up jobs that require fewer hours of work, or allows more breaks, but offer lower payments. Women also have to leave job frequently, as they are often required at home. (Calasanti & Bailey, 1991; Cohen, 2004).
Studies have revealed that between 1960s and 1980s women, who were not employed outside were engaged for about fifty hours a week in household work. Employed women spent 26 to 33 hours a week on household work. In contrast, men engaged themselves in domestic work for only 11 hours a week (Coverman, 1989). There are three main reasons cited by researchers for this household division of labor:
- The relative power of the spouse determines who spends more time in domestic work. Since men’s contribution to household income is more, men did less of housework. Critics point out that with the increase in income of the wife, the decision making power of the female partner has increased but she still has to bear the major part of household work. The contribution of men in housework has increased very little with the employment of the women.
- The role of each gender is most often driven by social ideologies. Again, critics point out that it is the husband’s idea that rules. The wife’s standpoint is often ignored. Men often feel that this division of labor at home is natural. Even education has not been able to bring any difference to this view.
- Another most common justification provided for the minimal role of men in household work is that, men get less time at home. With more and more women getting employed outside home, very little change has occurred in the relative time spent by men and women in housework. Women’s leisure time has got reduced while men use their free time in entertainment. (Calasanti & Bailey, 1991).
- Extension of the household division to the labor market: Though women’s participation in the labor force has increased over time, women are mostly employed in ‘female dominated’ jobs. These jobs are more often below standard and hence lowly paid. This has increased gender segregation in wages. Women are employed on the basis of the social belief about roles of men and women in society. Their own choices and their human capital assets are not considered. (Cohen, 2004). Table 2 shows that there are more women, than men, engaged as secretaries, receptionists, housekeepers, nurses and clerks. The table is based on 1992/93 US data. We also observe that 26.2%of all working women were engaged in ‘keeping house”.
The Occupational Segregation is more pronounced when ‘keeping house’ is considered as an occupation. This is clear from Table 3. It shows the index of dissimilarities between the genders. With the inclusion of ‘keeping house’ the index falls to only 62.6 but the fall is more (19.7 against 16.1). With the passage of time, an increasing number of women have moved from keeping house to other professions.
Occupational Gender Segregation
- Institutional Environment: From 1970 onwards the inclusion of women into the job force has increased. There are wide variations across regions, organizations and industries in the percentage of women engaged and their pay structure. Several studies have shown that institutional environment has a significant effect on gender inequality. More supportive the institutional environment towards equality, less will be the gender inequality in the industries. The institutional environment is a reflection of the culture and value system of the society. It can also be highly influenced by the state’s attitude towards the establishment of equality. The implementation of the Fair Employment Practices Act in different states in USA from 1940s through the ‘60s is a proof to the role of the state in shaping institutional environment in favor of women. (Beggs, 1995).
- The Role of the State: In recent decades researchers have stressed on the role of the state in ensuring the sense of equal treatment of the genders. With both the ‘worker friendly’ and ‘family friendly’ policies the women are bound to gain economically, according to the researchers. The welfare state can bridge the gap between classes as well as genders. Both of these efforts will have a positive impact in reducing wage differentials between men and women. (Mandel & Shalev, 2009). This is true in the case of the US which had a long standing policy framework to ensure equal pay employment across classes and genders. (Blau & Kahn, 1994).
- Differences in Human Capital: The primary cause, according to thinkers, for the existence of gender inequality in terms of wage differentials in the US labor market is the difference in human capital resource among men and women. It is argued that, since women spend a significant amount of their post schooling time out of job, they tend to lose their skills. They are relatively less experienced than men with the same qualifications. Further, women who plan to be out of their job more often to meet their family demands, tend to choose jobs that penalize less for discontinuation of service time and again. Therefore, the two factors, first the loss of years of experience and second, the tendency to opt for ‘soft jobs’ that penalize less for discontinuity, are the causes for low wages for women. (England,1982)
This explanation for the gender wage inequality, based on the human capital theory, have been opposed by a number of theorists. Citing empirical findings, researchers have maintained that women are not less penalized in female jobs for staying out of job. Women maintaining continuity in service are also equally apt to be in female jobs. This proves that human capital theory could not ssatisfactorily explain the wage gap between men and women. There are a complex set of factors determining occupational gender inequality some of which we have discussed in this paper.
We have come a long way from the times when society felt women are the weaker sex. In the social belief of the past women were thought to be efficient only in household activities . A major part of their time was spent in cleaning, washing, cooking and bringing up their children. Men were hardly known to participate in these areas of work. With the passage of time as new gadgets took entry into households with the advancement of technology, women got time away from their household work. The participation of women in employment outside their house increased at this phase. Women have come a long way and have entered areas where only men were known to succeed. This has, in fact, doubled women’s role and contribution to society. Women who are engaged in activities away from their home are still expected to carry out the major part of the ‘housekeeping’ work. We still need another era of change to break through the household division of labor.
Beggs, J.J.(1995). The Institutional Environment: Implications for Race and Gender Inequality in the US Labor Market. American Sociological Review 60(4), 612-633, August, 1995.
Blau, F.D. & Kahn, M.L. (1994). Rising Wage Inequality and the US Gender Gap. The American Economic Review, 84(2), 23-28, May 1994.
Calasanti, T.M. & Bailey, T. A. (1991). Gender Inequality and the Division of Household Labor in the United States and Sweden : A Socialist-Feminist Approach. Social Problems 38(1), 34-53. Feb. 1991.
Cohen, P.N.(2004). The Gender Division of Labor: “Keeping House” and Occupational Segregation in the United States. Gender and Society, 18(2), 239-252. April 2004.
Coverman, S. (1989). Women’s Work is Never Done : The Division of Domestic Labor. In Joe Freeman(ed.) Women:A Feminist Perspective, 356-368.Mountain View. Cliff. Mayfield.
England, P.(1982). The Failure of Human Capital Theory to Explain Occupational Sex Segregation. The Journal of Human Resources, 17(3), 358-370.
Mandel, H. & Shalev, M. (2009). How Welfare States Shape the Gender Pay Gap: A Theoritical and Comparative Analysis. Social Forces, 87(4), 1873-1911, June 2009.