Women are participating in the paid workforce more than ever before. By and large, though, they continue to work in the same jobs females have always had.
In the 35 years from 1987 to 2022, females’ share of total hours worked in Australia grew from 32% to 42%.
You might expect this to have led to a higher proportion of women in most jobs. Instead, female employment has become even more concentrated in female-dominated occupations – jobs where 70% or more of hours worked are by women.
For example, about 95% of hours by child-care workers and 91% of hours by receptionists was done by females in 2021-22, Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows. These are higher percentages than in 1987.
But women accounted for just 3% of truck-driving hours, and less than 1% of hours worked by carpenters and joiners.
Some things were better 35 years ago
In 1986-87, 37% of hours worked by women were in female-dominated jobs. By 2021-22, it was was almost 44%.
Some jobs have moved from being male-dominated to being more balanced; especially in managerial and professional occupations.
In 2021-22, 53% of hours worked by accountants were done by females, up from 16% in 1986-87. Solicitors, human resources professionals and economists, to name just a few, have seen similar changes.
But that cannot hide the overall story that occupational segregation persists in Australia.
It’s also the case that there have been few cases of female-dominated jobs becoming more balanced in the past 35 years. Phsyiotherapists and aged and disabled carers are the only exceptions.
It’s a drag on the economy
Having our labour market organised this way comes at a big cost.
Suppose we believe that innate ability to do most jobs is similar between females and males. In other words, while some people will be better accountants than nurses, and others better nurses than accountants, those proportions don’t vary much between females and males.
This means, if we want the people who are going to be the best working in any job, we need a relatively even balance of females and males. Without that, national productivity will be lower than it could be.
A 2019 study by economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and colleagues at the University of Chicago and Stanford shows just how much this can matter.
Their paper estimates 20-40% of growth in GDP per capita in the United States between 1960 and 2010 came from reducing occupational segregation by sex and ethnicity.
There is also a human cost from occupational segregation, with individuals being prevented from working in the jobs from which they will derive the greatest satisfaction.
Deconstructing social barriers
To get rid of the costs that occupational segregation imposes, we need to remove the barriers that allow it to happen.
One barrier is getting the skills to do a job. Norms that drive the subjects boys and girls choose to study at school, or sex-based discrimination in entry to training programs, are examples of factors that create this barrier.
Another barrier can be labour-market discrimination, with hiring practices that entrench gender steretypes. A resume study published in June, for example, found male applications got 50% more callbacks in male-dominated occupations and 40% fewer callbacks in female-dominated occupations.
Addressing these barriers will take economy-wide reforms as well as dealing with specific barriers that exist for individual occupations.
It’s also important to recognise the task is not just to remove barriers on females moving into male-dominated jobs. To get the full benefits from reducing occupational segregation, males moving into female-dominated jobs has to be on the agenda as well.