Women's Economic Dominance: Is It Really Inevitable?

Predominantly female occupations are projected to grow in the coming years—but the expansion won't create all that many jobs.

cohen_womenworkforce_post.jpg
Reuters

Both Liza Mundy (The Richer Sex) and Hanna Rosin (The End of Men) argue that the transition to a postindustrial, service- and knowledge-based economy—in conjunction with declining gender discrimination—are leading inevitably to women's economic dominance. I have critiqued those stories in a series of posts on my site Family Inequality.

But there is one piece of Mundy and Rosin's argument I haven't questioned until now. It is so intuitively appealing that I assumed it was true: The demands of the economy are shifting dramatically in women's favor. Brains have superseded brawn and social skills have become increasingly important, they both claim (and I accepted without thinking much about it) which all favors women over men.

Mundy and Rosin make frequent references to a set of projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), showing that the occupations with the largest expected growth are dominated by women rather than men. But that description is, it turns out, misleading.

Occupations Projected

First, here is how Mundy and Rosin use the BLS numbers. Mundy writes:

Projections made by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that women's occupations will be favored in the next decade. ... All in all, of the ten jobs with the largest projected job growth—nurses, home health aides, customer service reps, food preparation and serving workers, home care aides, retail sales, office clerks, accountants and auditors, nursing units, and postsecondary teachers—nine are majority female.

Rosin uses similar statistics, which have been repeated in reviews like this one in the Chicago Tribune, this one in the Globe and Mail, and blogs like this one at the World Bank. She writes (in a passage approvingly quoted by David Brooks):

The recession merely revealed—and accelerated—a profound economic shift that has been going on for at least 30 years, and in some respects even longer.... Of the fifteen job categories projected to grow the most in the United States over the next decade, twelve are occupied primarily by women.

Okay, here's the first moment I should have paused. Women are almost half the labor force. So if occupations are "majority female" or "dominated" by women, how different are they from average? Does this really mean the occupational structure really strongly shifting in women's favor?

The BLS projections are detailed here. They include hundreds of occupations, but they also summarize this pattern for 22 "major occupation groups," which range in size from 1 million to 23 million workers. I added in the gender composition of each group to show the relationship between gender composition and projected growth.

cohen_post1chart1.png

As you can see, the female-dominated occupations are projected to grow fastest. For dramatic effect, one might point to the top-right point: healthcare support occupations are 87 percent female and projected to grow 35 percent over the decade. On the other hand there are production occupations: 26 percent female and aiming for a paltry four percent growth. But that would be cherry-picking examples. What the sophisticated reader really wants to know is the overall relationship between gender and job growth. And that is not what it appears.

Here is the same graph, but with the occupation groups shown in proportion to thethe number of workers they represent, and the trendline redrawn to reflect their disparate weights.

cohen_post1chart2.png

Now the picture is much different. That giant dot on the lower right is 23 million office and administrative support workers—72 percent female and growing slowly. And near the middle are three large occupation groups that are 40 to 50 percent female, also growing slowly (sales, food preparation and serving, and management). The gender action is all in the occupations that employ a smaller number of people. The big story about growth and gender composition of major occupation groups is not true. (In technical terms, the slope of that line in the first figure is reduced by half when we account for the size of the dots. And in fact the slope would be cut in half again if we just dropped the healthcare support occupations point, which exerts outsized influence as an outlier.)

So how do Mundy and Rosin come up with the lists of occupations projected to grow the most? The top 10 growing occupations (at the detailed level) are mostly female-dominated. But those occupations made up just 15 percent of the workforce in 2010, and are projected to make up only 17 percent by 2020. The top 15 are projected to increase from 22 percent to just 23 percent of the workforce. The growth in these jobs just doesn't represent that much of a change for the entire economy.

If occupations aren't really shifting in women's directions anymore, we shouldn't be surprised. In 2001, analyzing occupational trends of the 20th century, David Cotter, Joan Hermsen and Reeve Vanneman concluded:

Change in the occupational structure is not responsible for the continued growth in women's labor force participation after 1970. That is, it is not the growth of traditionally female occupations that is driving the continuing growth in women's labor force participation rates in the 1970s and 1980s.

Rather, it was—and still is—the growth of integrated middle-class occupations, and women moving into new occupations, that provide the impetus for women's increased labor force share. Hard as it is to believe, the overall shift toward traditionally female-typed occupations largely ended by the 1970s. Yes, there are more nurses and home health aides today than there were then, but there are also fewer maids and domestic servants. And although blue-collar manufacturing jobs have continued to decline, truck-driving and construction have not. (I extended their trend through 2010 to check whether this is still true. Women's share of the labor force would have increased from 38 percent in 1970 only to 41 percent in 2010 based on occupational shifts alone, if the gender composition of each occupation hadn't changed. That means about 70 percent of the increase in women's share of the labor force came from occupations becoming more integrated instead of occupations growing and shrinking.)

Presented by

Philip Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland in College Park.

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