In the 20th century, women smashed glass ceilings across the world. But continued progress is not inevitable. Recent developments in the U.S. pose a stark warning: Abortion rights may be rolled back, and working-class women’s employment may be in jeopardy.
In the U.S., female school leavers are stuck in poorly paid “pink collar” jobs: as social workers, secretaries, beauticians, retail assistants, and waitresses. Mechanics, manufacturing, and other skilled manual jobs remain overwhelmingly male (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Sex segregation of middle-class and working-class occupations in the United States
Source: Cotter et al 2004.
Why is this? There are at least four possible explanations.
Physical strength is required in some manual roles—like construction in India and China. But in Western warehouses and factories, bulging biceps have been displaced by robots.
Gender ideologies are pervasive. Stereotyped as caring and agreeable, working-class women may gravitate toward social care, retail, and hospitality. Conformity is also motivated by the desire for peer approval. With limited opportunity to collectively break out of this straitjacket, secondary school (or high school) graduates follow established norms.
So, given the social costs of transgressing gender boundaries, women move upwards, but not sideways—or so it was famously argued by Paula England, whose article has over 1,600 citations. But does ideology trump economics? Do poor, working-class women willingly forgo lucrative job opportunities?
Low demand may be part of the problem. “Good jobs” for high school graduates have dwindled. Manufacturing and other manual-intensive occupations that on average paid substantially higher salaries than services have disappeared (Figures 2 and 3).
Figure 2. Job polarization between the mid-1990s and mid-2010s
Source: Will there be enough good jobs? MIT Technology Review.
Figure 3. Evolution of total employment by type of occupation based on skills, normalized to 1980 value
Source: Duran-Franch 2020.
Having lost jobs in manufacturing, American men increasingly pursue service and clerical occupations, as shown by Joana Duran-Franch. They have leaped ahead in these job queues. Unlike working-class women, they are not stymied by unaffordable child care. More importantly, employers anticipate that men will work longer hours, so may statistically discriminate in their favor. The overall downturn in demand means that even as “pink collar” jobs are growing, women lose out.
Men have capitalized on the growth in interpersonal work, even though it was historically feminine. Economics can trump culture! Gender stereotypes may well be pervasive, but individuals shift tack when they eye sufficient rewards.
Figure 4. Evolution of the share of low-educated employment, gender ratio, and wage by occupation type
Source: Duran-Franch 2020.
Mining, manufacturing, and transportation have become increasingly automated. Workers have been displaced from routine tasks—as shown in Figure 5 by economists Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo.
Figure 5. Task displacement and component due to observed technologies (in %), 1987-2016
In the U.S., this may have positive consequences for productivity and workers might move into better jobs, as argued by David Autor. Indeed, some are! But as Duran-Franch’s analysis suggests, this transition is predominantly male.
There are strong parallels in emerging economies. Even if they industrialize, this is unlikely to generate mass employment. India’s industrial sector remains small and capital intensive. Job queues are long, and men are at the front. Since manufacturing demand can be met by men, employers seldom diversify.
Even as economies become more technologically innovative, working-class women from Michigan and Mumbai may be left far behind.