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The ‘Declining Significance of Gender’ Reexamined: Cross-Country Comparison of Individual and Structural Aspects of Gender Inequality

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How structural inequalities within society hold women back

Despite progressive policies, gender inequality persists in the labour market and at home. The Struct. vs. Individ. project showed how structural mechanisms have overtaken individual ones in creating deep-set issues.

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Many barriers to women’s advancement in society have been dismantled in recent decades. Women now benefit from higher education and can access prestigious jobs once claimed by men. But a gender revolution slowdown since the 1990s has led scholars to identify a new phenomenon hindering progress, which forms part of the structural barriers to gender equity. As principal investigator Hadas Mandel, head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University, explains: “Discrimination against women as individuals has been outlawed and lost social legitimacy. However, these individual-level mechanisms are being replaced by structural ones.” Structural mechanisms refer to the criteria determining economic rewards in the labour market. These criteria are unintentionally and unconsciously affected by gender beliefs regarding the lower value of women’s skills, competence and abilities. This, in turn, legitimises lower economic rewards for ‘women’s jobs’, and perpetuates differences in the amount of time men and women respectively spend on tasks such as child-rearing and housework. Although these mechanisms have been acknowledged by gender scholars, empirical research comparing their changing impact on gender gaps over time is desperately lacking. With support from the European Research Council (ERC), the Struct. vs. Individ. project aimed to fill this gap. “My goal is to assess the changing mechanisms underpinning gender inequality in post-industrial labour markets,” says Mandel. These mechanisms include the lower value and wages of what is considered as female work, the effect of gender ideology, and the effect of the steep rise of top earnings. Her team used various data sets from different countries and periods to estimate the effect these mechanisms had on gender inequality over the past decades.

Better jobs with higher wage gaps

Project findings on the devaluation of female occupations are particularly interesting. Through her research, Mandel uncovered two different, opposing mechanisms at work in the United States since the 1960s. The first mechanism relates to women’s progressive entry into highly rewarded jobs, an individual mechanism that narrows the gender gap. However, while more women do reach top-level jobs, the economic rewards of these occupations have suffered from a wage penalty – a structural mechanism that widens the gender gap. The team also found out that the growth of earning inequality in the United States, greatly affected by the expansion of top earnings, is associated with a growing gender gap in wage and in education premiums. “We showed that men have a higher monetary return on investment in themselves, notably through education, than women do – a structural mechanism – and this plays a bigger role in the existing gender gap than differences in educational attainment itself – an individual mechanism,” adds Mandel. The project is due for completion in June 2022. Mandel and her team will study as many structural mechanisms as possible to identify their net effect on gender inequality. “Our research can help both scholars and policymakers gain a better grasp of the importance, impact and ways in which structural mechanisms shape gender inequality in the labour market and beyond,” she notes. This could serve as a foothold for policies aiming to eradicate the structural aspects of gender inequality, starting with the acknowledgement that structural mechanisms related to gendered biases are concealed and mostly unintended. “It’s really a matter of changing cultural perceptions and social priorities,” concludes Mandel. “Because these changes are demanding challenges, empirical evidence supporting their negative implications can be a good start.”


Struct. vs. Individ., gender inequality, top jobs, structural mechanisms

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