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

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - Struct. vs. Individ (The ‘Declining Significance of Gender’ Reexamined: Cross-Country Comparison of Individual and Structural Aspects of Gender Inequality)

Reporting period: 2020-07-01 to 2021-12-31

Optimistic voices in the debate about the future of the gender revolution rely on comprehensively detailed trends documenting the erosion of barriers to women’s advancement over recent decades – trends evident in almost all areas of life in post-industrial societies. The second wave of feminism and the struggle for civil rights, followed by changes in the occupational structure – first and foremost the growth of white collar occupations and professionalism – triggered the upward mobility of women within the labor market, and in society at large. For example, women’s involvement in paid work has dramatically increased; the male-breadwinner model lost it prominence, and the amount of time devoted by women to paid work (relative to unpaid word) increased. Women have also surpassed men in overall rates of college graduation, an important change triggering the integration of women into politics, and into prestigious jobs in previously male-dominated occupations, particularly managerial and high-status professional occupations. These changes have been accompanied by shifts in legislation and public opinion, towards a greater support for gender equality – which together have contributed to a convergence in gender pay gaps. Based on these solid outcomes, the optimistic conclusion is almost self-evident: when gender inequality is assessed by the educational, occupational, or economic attainments of individual men and women, the significance of gender as a stratifying force has consistently declined over the last half-century.
Less optimistic perspectives, however, are sounded by gender scholars, who point to the slowdown and even stagnation of major aspects of this ‘gender revolution’ from the mid-1990s onwards, especially in the United States. This shift – which has taken on increasing significance in recent studies – is surprising, given the consistent increase in the numbers of women entering hitherto male fields of study, and the increase in the amount of time women devote to paid work. In explaining this situation, feminists point to structural mechanisms of gender inequality. They argue that despite the economic advancement of individual women, the ‘gender revolution’ did not succeed in eliminating deeply embedded gender beliefs about the fundamental differences between men and women in skill competence and abilities. These beliefs, they argue, not only restrict women’s entry to certain fields of study and occupations, but also contribute to devaluing women’s skills and activities relative to men; legitimize lower economic reward for jobs and activities dominated by women; and preserve the disproportionate amounts time spent by women on housework. All these factors create serious ‘bottlenecks’ hindering the further advancement of gender equality.
The aim of the project is to identify these ‘bottlenecks’, which we argue served as ‘structural barriers’ preventing individual women from competing successfully against men for resources and rewards. We argue that as women become more integrated into positions of power, the more influential the role of these structural barriers is likely to become. However, because these are less visible and amenable to empirical assessment, they are under-researched compared to individual aspects, and are commonly assumed to be gender-neutral. The implication is that the importance of gender as a determinant of economic inequality in the labor market is insufficiently acknowledged, and consequently is difficult to track and eradicate. Thus, the distinction between individual and structural aspects of gender inequality in this context is not merely of analytical importance, but carries significant implications for empirical study, and for our ability to assess the changing role of gender inequality in our society. Amidst the abundance of empirical research on long-term trends in gender inequality, gender is usually perceived and empirically examined at the individual level (i.e. by trends in gender pay gaps, by the upward occupational mobility of women, etc.). Within this extensive research, the structural processes of gender inequality are not often acknowledged or taken into account. This deficiency obscures our understanding of gender inequality, and thus our ability, as a society, to alleviate it and its negative ramifications.
All our works in the project aim to track the relationship between structural vs. individual processes of gender inequality, mostly within a long-term perspective. So far we have addressed several countervailing processes at play; some relate to women’s individual upward mobility on the occupational structure versus women’s collective negative effect on occupational pay; others relate to women’s upward position in the labor market verses the relative stagnation in the division of housework between the spouses. Our works on the topic of educational premiums have also revealed countervailing processes; whilst it is well documented that women have greater incentives to invest in education (given their low earning potential otherwise), women’s lower absolute education premiums are not acknowledged, nor is the rise in the gender gap in education premiums over time. These countervailing processes are caused by and are reflected in a complex dynamic between economic and cultural processes; economic relations between men and women at the workplace and between spouses within the family have changed relatively rapidly over recent decades, but gender relations – founded on norms and ideology – have been much more resistant to change. In addressing the distinction between individual and structural forms of gender inequality, their theoretical sources and their empirical manifestations, we aim to make the structural forms of gender inequality more evident and accessible to empirical comparative studies.
Recognizing the power of institutional contexts to alter the dynamic between the two processes and their influence on gender gaps, we have addressed some of the dynamics mentioned above across different countries, exemplifying the impact of different institutional contexts. Using this comparative perspective, our goal is to assess the importance of the institutional context in facilitating or inhibiting individual and structural mechanisms of gender in/equality.
Working to achieve the project’s objectives, our team has thus far advanced four different avenues of research, yielding seven papers, all at different stages of the review process in top-ranked academic journals.
The first of these branches of the project utilizes and analyzes large U.S datasets to explore the structural processes causing inequality, due to employment in specific occupations and sectors of the economy. The first article - published in Demography (DOI: 10.1007/s13524-018-0657-8) a leading journal in Demography and related fields- examines the relation between occupational feminization (measured by an increase in the percent of females in an occupation), and the devaluation of the occupation’s value (measured by its average wage). This paper establishes the core idea of the project – the distinction between individual and structural aspects of gender inequality, and the opposing long-term trends of the two aspects. Specifically, it demonstrates how individual-level processes – i.e. the increasing educational attainments of women, as well as increasing levels of entry into professional occupations in the United States since the 1960s - has offset and thus concealed structural aspect of gender inequality, specifically the increasing devaluation of occupations due to higher prevalence of female workers. Another research study in a similar vein seeks to depict the structural effects of gender inequality operating via occupations and sectors of employment. In this work, we examine the extent to which different structural sectors – in this case employment in the public sector vs. private sector – attracts and rewards subgroups differently, as classified by race and gender.
The second strand of the project focuses on one of the most important aspects of structural gender inequality; gender gaps in the rewards to individual’s human capital. In this case, structural aspects refer to different economic rewards for similar individual attributes, based on gender. Previous research has focused on the benefits that individuals derive from investing in their human capital (mainly education and work experience), but overlooked gender inequality in economic rewards to these investments. We have analyzed the gender gaps in the absolute monetary value of education and work experience, and changes to these gaps over time. We show that while differences in levels of education between men and women have dramatically declined in the U.S labor market since 1980 (an individual-level process), men continue to receive higher wage premiums for their education than women – and that these differences have grown substantially over time (a structural-level process). This structural aspect, reflected also with regard to gender differences in economic rewards to work experience, is a key portion of the existence and persistence of the gender wage gap.
The third strand of the project explores the influence of organizational practices (yet another structural aspect) on gender in/equality, in a unique organizational setting: the reformed Israeli Kibbutz. Over recent decades, most of these communities underwent major economic, social, and ideological transformations, the most significant being the move from unpaid to paid labor—requiring a formal job evaluation process. This process created a unique opportunity for identifying organizational practices that produce gender wage inequality, via the impact of different job evaluation methods and the inter-relationship between the organization and the market. This research uses a mixed-method approach with unique data. It utilizes qualitative data from interviews with officials in two kibbutz communities and professionals who offer job evaluation services to kibbutz communities, and quantitative wage data from the above-mentioned kibbutz community.
Our fourth and final strand of the project takes a step back from labor market outcomes to explore socio-structural processes that explain the worldwide gender gaps in housework division. The devaluation of women’s skills and activities relative to men not only legitimize lower economic reward for women and for jobs dominated by women in the labor market, but also preserve the unequal division of housework between men and women, which, in turn, create ‘bottlenecks’ for women’s advancement in paid work. In two cross-country comparative studies, we show the power of the prevalent gender ideology in countries to change the intra-workings of couples’ division of housework tasks. Not only is the gender ideology context related to a more in/egalitarian division of housework, it also affect the value of women’s resources – i.e. their ability to leverage their economic resources to demand greater equity in housework vis-à-vis their spouses. In this respect, women’s economic resources are depend to a large extend on structural barriers of gender ideology.
The dominant view in studies that examine trends in gender pay gaps perceive structural parameters as related to the wage structure in general, and as such gender-neutral. For example, while differences in the amount of overwork done by men and women are viewed as gender-specific factors, the high returns (the wage reward) for overwork, in general, are not. In a similar manner, sex segregation between occupations and different rewards for men and women working in the same occupation are considered gender-specific factors – but variations in occupational rewards is not. Thus, in contrast to pay differentials between men and women who perform the same (for example) managerial occupation, or differences in the representation of men and women in managerial positions, which are considered gendered, the higher premium for managers in general, relative to other occupations (say, teachers or care-givers), is thought to be determined by market forces and, therefore, unrelated to gender.
We challenge the view that the wage structure or the occupational structure is gender neutral, and set out to examine whether the structural aspects, such as returns to education or masculine jobs, are gendered. In order to examine such questions, empirical research must first acknowledge the potentially gendered nature of the wage/occupational structure. Only then can we track long-term changes in wage-related characteristics in order to determine whether higher returns to a specific attribute of the individual are systematically related to gendered characteristics or not. So far we have shown that at least some of the attributes of wage structure, deemed by many as ‘gender-neutral’, are in fact gendered and are becoming more robust in impact over the last few decades – causing women’s wages to fall behind those of men, even while women’s individual labor market qualities draw all the more closer to men. By the end of the project, we expect to deepen our understanding of the theoretical sources of these structural forms of gender inequality, including a more thorough examination of the role of institutional, contextual factors in this using cross-country, long-term, comparative data.