(S)He Works Hard for the Money

Originally posted at carlsonsalon.blogspot.com

Men are increasingly entering traditionally female-dominated professions, according to recent analysis. Shaila Dewan and Robert Gebeloff reveal that

An analysis of census data by The New York Times shows that from 2000 to 2010, occupations that are more than 70 percent female accounted for almost a third of all job growth for men, double the share of the previous decade.
Dewan and Gebeloff offer a variety of plausible explanations for this trend, including “financial concerns, quality-of-life issues, and a gradual erosion of stereotypes.” They hypothesize that the stigma of entering female-dominated professions is lessoning, while, at the same time, the stability of female dominated professions compared to male-dominated professions is increasingly attractive in the current economy.
Whatever the reason, I believe this trend has interesting implications for not only the gender segregation of labor, but the value of such labor.
Since the rise of wage-labor during the Industrial Revolution, women’s labor has consistently been devalued relative to men’s labor.* This was the subject of my first blog post, in which I argued that the “caring professions,” including nursing, teaching, and social work, are specifically devalued due to being female-dominated professions.
The introduction of men into the “pink collar” professions may change all this. With more men entering these professions, it is possible that the segregation of labor may slowly begin to erode. Consequently, as both men and women are represented proportionally in various professions, the formerly-female-dominated jobs will no longer be stigmatized as “female,” and will presumably demand a more equitable salary based on merit, rather than gender.
This is a promising idea, but it also troubles me for several reasons:
First, this does nothing to address the problem of women earning less than men for the same work. It will take a host of cultural solutions and policy interventions in labor and family services (i.e., state-sponsored childcare, so that women do not get pushed off the career track when they choose to have families) before anything resembling gender-based economic equality can be reached in this country.
Secondly, this idea does not address the inherent value of women’s work as opposed to men’s work; It simply helps eradicate the two categories so that they cannot be compared. In the end, one can presume that women’s labor (not to be confused with female-dominated professions), where it exists, will still be devalued compared to men’s, for it is only when men enter a profession that wages begin to reflect the actual labor rather than who is doing it. We will have done little to ensure that women, and their labor, are valued in and of themselves.
On a practical level, however, this may be our best hope for economic equality. Personally, I have spent many years focusing my attention and efforts on the value (or devaluation) of women’s labor without questioning the category, itself, too much. This was ideological product of my “Women-Are-Powerful-Ra-Ra-Sisterhood” political ideology. However, this trend is convincing me that efforts to improve gender equality would perhaps be more effectively directed towards eradicating the gender-segregation of labor, in the first place. This is a complicated issue that carries interesting theoretical consequences— including new perspective on the feminist “difference vs. equality” debate—so I’ll defer judgment for today.
Regardless, the fact that previously female-dominated professions are carrying less stigma cannot be construed as anything but a positive sign. And I welcome as many men into the teaching, nursing, clerical, and other traditionally female-dominated professions as will enter.
*Although the gender-segregation of labor was nothing new at the time, it was not until the introduction of paid wages that this monetary devaluation could occur as men’s labor moved outside the home into the realm of wage-labor, while women’s work remained in the home and unpaid.
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