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Disentangling sex segregation in occupations

In a recent paper published in Social Networks, former LCDS Researcher and current Associate Member Per Block uses new network science methods to understand the self-organising mechanisms driving occupational sex segregation.

Decades after the start of the gender revolution, most women and men still work in sex-typed occupations. Research into occupational sex segregation have given three standard explanations for this:

  1. Vertical segregation: Men occupy higher status, and better paying jobs as discrimination hinders women’s access to them (e.g. the glass ceiling metaphor)

  2. Horizontal segregation: Men work in jobs that require male-typed skills (e.g. physical strength) while women work in jobs that need female-typed skills (e.g. sociability)

  3. Division of labour: Women in heterosexual couples tend to work in occupations that are compatible with family life (e.g. part-time work around housework and child rearing).

However, these explanations cannot account for differences in sex compositions within occupations, such as medical doctors or lawyers, in which highly male or female dominated specialisations exist. They also cannot explain sex ratio shifts over time from male to female dominated occupations, as seen in primary school teachers and accountants.


One likely explanation is linked to the devaluation perspective of female labour which hypothesises that men selectively leave occupations that become female dominated. This could be down to men’s changing perception of the occupation as a ‘woman’s job’ or that feminised occupations lead to reduced income and status.


Study author Per Block said, ‘Whilst occupational characteristics have been shown to drive sex segregation, they might only be part of the story. In this study we also wanted to analyse whether men leaving feminising occupations could be observed in the entire labour market beyond case studies that were conducted so far.’


Understanding the mechanisms driving occupational sex segregation

For his study, Block used a newly developed network science approach to understand the mechanisms driving occupational sex segregation and answer the following research question:

Do men leave occupations beyond what is predicted by occupational characteristics and based on the sex composition of individuals entering the occupation?

A network describing mobility between occupations based on data of individual occupational changes in Great Britain from 2000 to 2008 was used to provide insights into vertical, horizontal, and organisational characteristics of occupations, as well as the interdependent mobility of women and men through occupations.


The study used 25 occupational characteristics shown previously to influence sex compositions of occupations as a starting point, offering a variable-based description of mobility patterns (e.g. women are more likely than men to leave occupations that require regular overtime).


In a second step, a statistical model for the analysis of mobility network allows for the analysis of how the mobility decisions of different individuals are interdependent. In particular, whether men’s tendency to move out of occupations is dependent on the share of women moving in.


Interdependence of male and female mobility

The results of the study showed that occupational mobility indeed differs by sex, how it differs by sex, and that female and male mobility is interdependent.


In line with previous research, women and men differ in the types of occupations that they move to and leave. Occupational characteristics that are linked to differences in female and male mobility are shown in a graph from the study below.


While occupational characteristics are important predictors of female and male mobility, there was a substantial and clear tendency of men to leave occupations when more women enter.


According to the study, ‘a 10% increase in the proportion of women moving into an occupation reduces the probability of men staying by approximately 12%. Men are approximately only half as likely to stay in an occupation with 75% female inflow compared to 25% female inflow’.


Strongest determinant of sex segregation

Using a simulation mode, the study found that men leaving feminising occupations is the strongest determinant of sex segregation, compared to any of the individual occupational characteristics analysed in the study.


Block added, ‘A striking finding from this analysis is that if men and women would completely ignore sex composition in their decision to stay or leave an occupation, simulations suggest that sex segregation would decrease by 19-28% within a relatively short amount of time.’


In summary, a substantial portion of sex segregation was caused by men leaving feminising occupations, indicating the extent to which male and female mobility are interdependent in the analysed data.


Implication on gender roles in society

The findings of this study question common narratives that justify prevailing sex segregation. They also open an interesting debate and room for future research on whether occupational sex segregation is a consequence of voluntary choices for different types of work that happens to differ between women and men.


The study concludes ‘if the sorting of individuals into occupations is an emergent process in which women and men react to each other’s movements, perceived occupational characteristics might be consequence, rather than a cause of sex-typing of occupations.’

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