Theresa May was right; there are boy jobs and girl jobs. And that’s a problem, writes Rosie Sourbut, Co-Women*s Officer for TT18. 

It was a weird moment from the 2017 General Election campaign. Theresa May, having declined to partake in a policy debate, sat on the One Show sofa with her husband. As he described his freedom to choose when to take out the bins, she interjected, nodding enthusiastically as she stated: “There are boy jobs and girl jobs, you see.”

We would be naive to see this as a spontaneous revelation of May’s own archaic views on the correct gendered division of domestic duties, or the outrage and accusations of sexism that followed as accidental and unforeseen by her and her advisers. Instead, the Prime Minister was keen to reassure voters that, despite the country having a female leader, the structures of gender are still very much in place. This line must have been calculated to be a vote winner, letting viewers and those who saw the media reports know that May is on the side of the status quo and signifying that she sees no need to tackle the social factors that push women and men towards different career and life choices and that specifically point women towards roles with less economic or social power.

If we look outside of the home at the workplace, it is true that there are “boy jobs and girl jobs” across the UK, with four out of five people working in an environment dominated by their own sex. The most female-dominated industries include nursing; primary school teaching; and social work. These are all jobs which are perceived to have a strong nurturing element, and all of them are relatively low-paid compared to the qualifications required. This seems bizarre when one considers the crucial nature of these jobs to society. The people who teach children during their earliest years, for example, have a massive impact on the next generation of citizens, and yet for some mysterious reason these jobs command less respect, financial reward and prestige than those in finance and technology.

This reason becomes less mysterious when we look at studies that investigate the ways in which wages change as an industry changes its gender composition. In the 1940s and 50s, software programming was a job performed predominantly by women. It was considered a role requiring a typically ‘feminine’ skill set, with one computer programmer, Grace Hopper, stating that “women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming” and describing it as “just like planning a dinner”. While the skills required and the job done has remained largely the same over the decades, today the industry is vastly male-dominated, and a ‘rational’ mindset and lack of social skills are associated with and rewarded within it. The perception of the job’s duties, and its pay rates, have adjusted to match its largely male practitioners, and this has created a self-perpetuating cycle where males with these ‘masculine’ characteristics are drawn to and sought out for roles.

Meanwhile, as teaching has shifted from being male-dominated to female-dominated, the understanding of the role of a teacher has changed from being principally one of imparting knowledge to being one of nurturing. The masculine is rewarded and the feminine is disregarded, and the gender wage gap within society is created in part by this process. Jobs done by a large number of men are viewed as requiring ‘masculine’ characteristics and skills and are therefore, viewed as difficult and important, necessitating high pay as compensation. Meanwhile, jobs done by a large number of women are viewed as requiring ‘feminine’ characteristics and skills; these jobs, as a consequence, are often unpaid and undervalued. Children, encouraged to develop ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ characteristics and skills in accordance with their genders, are pushed respectively towards male-dominated and female-dominated jobs, and gender segregation within industries continues.

As long as gendered segregation of work, “boy jobs and girl jobs”, continues, jobs done by men will continue to be falsely profiled as masculine and jobs done by women as feminine. This hurts everyone: both the industries which are recruiting according to skills associated with stereotypes and not the particular attributes required for their employees’ roles, and the individuals who develop a set of gendered characteristics rather than their own particular strengths. And it hurts women especially, because for as long as so-called ‘feminine’ work is undervalued, women, along with men in female-dominated industries, will suffer from wages that do not reflect the true value of their work.

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