Sex Segregation in the Work Place

Why are most brain surgeons and CEO’s male? Why are most secretaries and nurses female? Why not female surgeons and male nurses? These are simple and frequent questions that can be answered by most Sociologist and Theorists. Sociologists and Theorists equate this type of job inequality phenomenon with occupational sex segregation. Sex segregation in the workplace is one of the most visible signs of inequality in the labor market. In almost every work setting, it is rare to see men and women working at the same job. When they do, they usually perform different tasks, with unequal levels of responsibility and authority. Even when job tasks are virtually identical, it is not uncommon to find men and women allocated to distinct job classifications within an organization. The two theoretical perspectives that I will discuss in order to explain this sex segregation are neo-classical and human capital theories, and institutional and labor market segmentation theories.

Neo-classical economics assumes that workers and employers are perfectly rational and that labor markets function efficiently and are perfectly competitive. Workers seek out the best-paying jobs after taking into consideration their own personal endowments (education and experience), obligations (young child to take care of), and preferences (a pleasant work environment). Employers try to maximize profits by maximizing productivity and minimizing costs to the extent possible, but because of competition and efficient labor markets, employers pay workers their marginal product. So, this theory explains why more males than females are surgeons; because they seem to have better opportunities for education and they tend to lack certain obligations that females have. Whereas many women find it difficult to find the time to obtain this education because of their certain obligations life hands them, for example taking care of a family and raising children.

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When explaining occupational sex segregation by sex, researchers usually distinguish labor supply and labor demand factors. Factors related to labor supply generally focus on why women “prefer” certain types of occupation for example, women may “prefer” those with flexible hours in order to allow time for child care, and may also “prefer” occupations which are relatively easy to interrupt for a period of time to bear or rear children. Explanations related to labor demand focus on why employers generally “prefer” to hire women or men for particular occupations and why women and men have different opportunities for promotion and career development within firms.

Institutional and labor market segmentation theories are another explanation for why women and men do not work in the same types of jobs. Institutional theories begin with the assumption that labor markets are segmented in certain ways. The best known is dual labor market theory, which distinguishes between a “primary” and a “secondary” sector (Piore, 1971). Jobs in the primary sector are relatively good in terms of pay, security, and opportunities for advancement and working conditions. Secondary sector jobs tend to be relatively poor as regards pay, chances for promotion and working conditions, and to provide little protection or job security.
In addition to the duel labor market theory, there is the statistical discrimination theory. This is based on the assumption that there are differences, on average, in the productivity, skills, experience, etc., of distinct groups of workers (such as men and women), and high search and information costs associated with recruitment and promotion decisions. Statistical discrimination theory thus provides an explanation for how some occupations are almost entirely male even though many individual women have greater ability, more education, etc. than many individual men, for example
The segmentation of occupations on the basis of workers’ sex is thus an important labor market phenomenon deserving greater attention from policy-makers and lay persons concerned about equality, efficiency and social justice.