Occupational Segregation Explained

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Heather K Adams734
Content + Copy Writer
We've come a long way in the fight for equal rights. On the one hand, women and minorities are charging into politics and leadership business roles in unprecedented numbers. Women are gaining leverage in the workforce in ways that weren't imaginable even twenty years ago. We seem to be breaking glass ceilings all over the place.
But on the other hand? Not so much. Wide swathes of professional occupations are still skewed heavily in the "male" and "white" directions. And the occupational segregation behind this imbalance reflects deeply held cultural prejudices that are still working against a truly equal workforce.

What is occupational segregation?

Simply put, occupational segregation is the unbalanced division of a workforce within or between different types of careers and industries. It's a division based on various demographic factors, such as race or gender. Measuring the levels of segregation in an industry can give a clear picture of just how uneven that workforce really is. For example, according to DataUSA, less than half of all physicians and surgeons in the U.S. are women.
Occupational gender (or sex) segregation is a lack of balance specifically in regards to gender. Depending on the industry, it can skew in either direction, from male-centric occupations to more traditionally female careers. For example, teaching and caregiving positions still tend to be occupied by women, whereas construction and labor jobs are almost exclusively the domain of men. Anyone of the "wrong" gender attempting to enter these fields can expect more obstacles than someone of the "right" gender might.

Why is occupational segregation important?

Occupational segregation isn't a good thing. But being able to measure it is. Why? If we treat it as a reflection of societal stereotypes at work, we can see where we still have issues to address as a culture. In order to create a more equal career outlook for everyone, regardless of gender or race, the underlying causes of occupational segregation need to be unpacked and dealt with.
Let's go back to the teachers vs. laborers example. Occupational gender segregation between these two careers doesn't exist because of any inherent abilities in women to be better teachers, or men better laborers. Instead, it exists as a reflection of our culturally-held gender norms. These norms are teaching us from a very young age to value one gender for a certain kind of work over the other. 
Just think about how much more discrimination (at work and in society in general) a woman faces working as a laborer rather than as a teacher. It's because she has a "man's" job. It's because she doesn't "belong."

Vertical and horizontal occupational segregation

Vertical occupational segregation is the division of labor in a top-down fashion. From a gendered perspective, this means one gender (usually male) occupies leadership positions, while the other (usually female) occupies administrative or supporting roles. 
Most industries have typically modeled this kind of segregation, which is where the old glass ceiling lament comes from. Women just couldn't rise above a certain station. If, that is, they were even allowed in at all.
Horizontal segregation deals with differences within the same field or career. Think of it as a glass wall instead of a ceiling, with women as the nurses and men as the doctors, or men as the lawyers and women working the clerical positions.
These traditional stereotypes probably have you rolling your eyes. Yet they still exist, today. Labor statistics give clear evidence to persistent occupational segregation trends. Which means we've got to do more than just make faces if we want to see any kind of true integration.

How does occupational sex segregation hurt economic growth?

There are real economic reasons for why gender inequality in the workplace needs to be resolved. For one thing, the pay gap between masculine and feminine jobs is significant. While a man discouraged from a "girly" kind of work can still pursue a lucrative career in a male-occupied field, a woman facing the reverse has the harder road to travel. Traditionally feminine occupations, or "women's work," just don't pay as well. 
Occupational segregation prevents women from pursuing careers in which they could otherwise be quite successful. Preventing those high achievers from earning (and then spending) the big bucks is bad for all of us.

How to fight occupational sex segregation

Women and men everywhere need to continue to smash our own stigmas, and cultivate a true equality mindset. For women, this can mean getting real with yourself about what kinds of work you want vs. what kinds you've learned that you're supposed to want.
An article on Forbes.com quotes research that shows women often avoid seeking work in areas that "belong" more to men. Not because they don't think they can handle the work, but because they assume they won't get the positions, just because of their gender.
Which is the exact bananas kind of mindset that encourages segregated occupational structures to persist.
For real change to happen, women need to lead by example. Allow yourself to pursue work that you find meaningful and want to build a career around, regardless of any perceived stigma. Will you face more challenges pursuing a more "masculine" occupation? Absolutely. But before you back away and choose a safer track, think about what that says to the girls coming up behind us. The ones called butch because they like to play sports with the boys more than they like makeup, who are still (still!) teased for being good at math, who wanted the toy truck as a toddler but got a doll instead.
Now that's motivation to break some glass walls and ceilings.

Last Word

Occupational segregation holds everyone back. When work is denied someone just because of their gender or their race, the entire workforce is deprived of all that awesome potential. And the only reason this situation exists is because it's structured around underlying cultural beliefs about gender or racial norms that are already way, way too outdated. 
Only our entrenched stereotypes stand in the way of smashing what "is" and "isn't" a woman's job. Equal rights can't happen without occupational integration.
Heather Adams is a writer and photographer.