COLUMN: Occupational segregation root of gender, race wage gap
While waiting for the Sooner Express, I watched the ebb and flow of campus life. As buses went by, I read ads that haven’t changed much since I was a freshman.
Two in particular stand out to me; they are both ads for career services. One depicts a man running through several panels, transforming himself from a scruffy college student to a successful, employable graduate. The second features different students in each frame, but ends with a similar image of a white man in a business suit.
Each time I see these ads I remember my Race, Gender and Media professor commenting on how telling they are about how we define success. Indeed, that iconic image of a young, white, professional man is not so much offensive as it is eerie: Nearly 50 years after the Equal Pay Act, a significant gendered wage gap endures.
Oppressions are entangled. It is scholastic artifice to isolate gender from race, class, sexuality, ability or any other layer of identity. This column will focus on the gender and race components of the wage gap.
You’ll often hear feminists and reporters say women make about 75 cents to every dollar made by men. This is true, but it also masks the racial element: White and Asian women make about 80 percent of what white men do, pulling up the average. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, black women earn 62 cents and Hispanic women earn 55 cents for every dollar.
Clearly, these figures match up to the racialised and gendered nature of poverty in the U.S. — the Census Bureau reports that in 2010, about 27 percent of impoverished families were black or Hispanic compared to 10 percent of non-Hispanic whites. Black and Hispanic women are disproportionately the heads of impoverished households. Race and income impact future generations because these factors impact the quality of education, health care and environment accessible to these families.
What generates these disparities? Among many factors, sociologists and economists highlight persistent occupational segregation. Occupational segregation refers to the fact that women are “crowded” into occupations understood as feminine, which remain undervalued on the labour market. White men are paid more across the board, even when they work in a “feminine” field, and they tend to be more evenly distributed across occupation types.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the top five professions for women are secretaries, registered nurses, elementary and middle school teachers, cashiers and retail salespeople. All of these fields are over 50 percent women — all but salespeople are over 70 percent. Barbara Bergmann and other economists argue that the enduring division of occupations into “men’s” and “women’s” jobs segments the labour market, allowing employers to pay women less. It’s not all statistics, though.
Bergmann writes, “An etiquette of male-female interaction that has the social function of expressing and acknowledging the subordination of women to men is still in place ... That etiquette, and the traditions behind it, remain as powerful inhibitors of the integration of men and women as equals and equivalents on the job.”
This argument can be extended to include race. Black and Hispanic women suffer under both race and gender-based market segmentation. Department of Labor data indicate they are crowded into the service sector at higher rates than white women and tend to receive less pay.
It is worth noting that Hispanic and black men also make less than white women — but in some sectors, particularly management, they make more. And within every occupation, men make more than women of their race.
One response to this disturbing trend has been to encourage women to negotiate for higher salaries and raises. Aside from missing the occupational segregation issue, this approach fails. Dr. Linda Babcock’s research adds to mounting evidence that when women ask for more money, they are often perceived as “too aggressive” and risk alienating their superiors and coworkers. It is easy to see how this would be compounded for women of color.
I don’t have the space to detail the ramifications of this problem or offer practicable solutions. Too often, women are told to pull ourselves up by our bra-straps or accept defeat as a sign of our gender and/or racial inferiority. Unfortunately, Clare Boothe Luce’s observation holds true: “Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, ‘She doesn’t have what it takes.’ They will say, ‘Women don’t have what it takes.’”
Elizabeth Rucker is an International Studies and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Environment senior.