The general assumption today is that where there are gender inequalities in whatever outcomes then discrimination and patriarchy which socialises people through stereotypes into certain roles, are responsible. For example when looking at the different jobs that men and women do. Popular thought would argue that traditional stereotypes leads to different type of jobs being considered feminine and others masculine and hence men and women internalize these norms and choose their occupations according to those stereotypes.
The index of dissimilarity (ID) is a statistical measure of the distribution of men and women in occupations. An index value of 1 means that the men and women are completely segregated; all the men are in jobs where there are only men and all the women are in jobs where there are only women. An index value of 0 means the genders are equally distributed with every single occupation consisting of an equally proportional distribution. For example if women make up 40% of the total labour force and every occupation has 40% of its workers as women then the index value is 0.
Another way to think of the ID is that it tells you what fraction of total workers would have to change occupations in order to have an equal distribution of workers in all occupations. An ID of 0.6 means that 0.6 of all workers would have to be redistributed into different occupations to have an equal gender distribution.
In reality most countries fall in between the two extremes. The smaller and closer to 0 a country’s index is the more equally distributed are the genders across occupations. A high score closer to 1 means that inequality and gender segregation across occupations is high.
If it is true that traditional stereotypes are socialising men and women into different occupational interests and choices- you will expect that countries that are more progressive and have more gender egalitarian norms will have a lower index of dissimilarity (ID). However, this is not the case.
Take a look at the Nordic countries (Finland, Norway, Sweden) which have high levels of gender egalitarian social norms and are classified as Substantive-Egalitarian meaning they are both formally committed to gender equality and strongly committed in terms of women friendly policy. They are considered the most progressive countries in terms of their commitment to gender equality and were leaders in introducing parental leave and allowances. Women’s participation in the labour market is high and is supported by extensive social services which allow women to combine parenthood and work.
The paradox and puzzling fact is that Nordic countries have a much higher ID – there is more occupational gender segregation in these countries even though they have the least traditional norms and stereotypes. Figure 1 shows how the countries that are ranked as being the most gender equal in the world actually have higher levels of occupational segregation than countries ranked much lower. Romania which is ranked very low in comparison to the Nordic countries and Iceland has a much lower ID.
Figure 1 – Occupational gender segregation comparison of countries with high and low gender equality rankings. (Source: Gender segregation in the Labour Market, Occupational Segregation)
A study, Towards Gender Equity in Japanese and Nordic Labour Markets: A Tale of Two Paths, that compared Japan and the Nordic countries found similar paradoxical results. Japan is classified as a Traditional Family-Centered state where socio-cultural norms limit women from participating in the workforce at high rates. Women tend to opt out of the work force once they are married. It was characterised (in 2003) by few formal -legal commitments to gender equality no policies and services that support working women. Despite its traditional-family orientation, the gender occupational ID is much lower in Japan.
Figure 2 – ID comparison of Nordic and Japan (Source: Towards Gender Equity in Japanese and Nordic Labour Markets: A Tale of Two Paths)
Clearly then gender differences in occupational choices cannot simply be boiled down to traditional gender roles and stereotypes. If this were the case then the Nordic countries would have much lower occupational segregation levels.
Another puzzling fact is that in most countries the level of occupational segregation has stalled after declining in the 1970- 1990s. The change in ID since the 1990s has been much smaller if not stagnant. This presents a puzzle given the fact that: traditional gender stereotypes and roles have substantially shifted compared to previous generations; there is far more public policy in place to support and promote gender equality; there are extensive and well-resourced organizations and institutions (think International Labour Organization, World Economic Forum, UN) providing expert knowledge on what policies are required to socially engineer gender equality across countries.
Figure 3 – Gender Occupation Index of Dissimilarity of European countries over time. Source:Gender segregation in the labour market
Figure 4 – Index of Dissimilarity of occupational gender segregation in America over time. (Source: Occupational segregation)
The rate of decline in ID has been low to stagnant over the last 25-30 years in America despite enormous changes in public perceptions about gender roles and stereotypes.
The dominant and popular narrative today is faulty. Gender differences in occupational choices cannot simply be chalked down to patriarchal and traditional stereotypes that women are socialised into. Even if there is vast disagreement on the exact causes – it is clear however that socialisation and gender stereotypes cannot be the major cause. What this paradox illustrates so well is that social phenomena are incredibly complex. There are far too many factors, most of which remain hidden and unknown, which interact in unobservable, or partially observable ways to produce the outcomes we see and try to explain.