The most recent issue of Gender and Society, the top sociology of gender journal, has and article by Paula England and Su Li1that examines trends in gender segregation of college majors. On a positive note, the study indicates that during the overall time period gender segregation decreased dramatically, but the study also found that the pace of gender desegregation stalled in the later years of the study (It covers 1971-2001).
The data the authors’ use points to the “devaluation of the feminine” argument. This argument posits that the pace of desegregation is driven by women entering male fields; however, men do not reciprocate by entering females fields since these fields are considered a “step down.” Thus, the process of change is asymmetrical–women are changing dramatically and men are not changing much.
The authors summarize their findings in this way:
Baccalaureate degree recipients have gone from 44 to 58 percent women from 1971 to 2002. Women’s representation increased most rapidly in the first decade. Indeed, although the fact that women are getting more college degrees than men has just recently surfaced in the popular press, women’s numbers passed men’s in 1982 and have remained higher ever since. During these three decades, the gender segregation of fields of undergraduate study has declined, but the largest decline was in the first half of the period. During that period, successive cohorts of women changed their field choices quite dramatically toward fields dominated by men—out of fields dominated by women such as education and English and especially into business-related fields. Virtually none of the desegregation came from more men choosing fields traditional for women in significantly greater numbers. In the latter half of the period, women’s probabilities of choosing the historically male-dominated majors failed to continue their upward trek, and their probabilities of choosing fields traditional for women (such as English and elementary education), which had been falling, stopped their fall. This is a large part of why desegregation has stalled. Desegregation was also stalled by the fact that, as fields feminized, men eschewed the fields, especially in the more recent period, as our regression results show. Whether this still-somewhat-segregated equilibrium is temporary or will hold for the long term remains to be seen.
Our interpretation of these patterns draws on two theoretical perspectives with implications for change. The devaluation perspective helps us to understand why gender-related change is deeply asymmetric. While desegregation could come from women’s abandoning predominantly female for predominantly male fields or from men’s abandoning predominantly male for predominantly female fields, almost all the change was of the former type. We believe that this is because any field associated with women has been culturally devalued, so that women have more to gain than men in status and rewards from majoring in fields nontraditional for their gender. Devaluation also explains our regression-based findings that feminization of fields deters men from entering.
The authors also say that this trend is consistent with other trends in gender inequality in recent years. Over the 1990s the indicators of gender inequality such as the pay gap, occupational segregation, and egalitarian attitudes have not changed much. (The authors cite a study by Cotter, Hermsen and Vanneman.)2 for the pay gap and occupational segregation. I have a feeling the the 1990s and 2000s are going to be for gender what the 1970s and 1980s were for race–the point at which major progress towards ending inequality stalls. Of course, this is just me speculating.
On of the things that this study suggests is that after a certain point, gender desegregation is really contingent on men’s choices and behaviors. This also leads me to wonder what we can do to get more men to enter fields like nursing or education, since women have been entering fields like engineering and physics in larger numbers.
- England, Paula and Su Li. 2006. “Desegregation Stalled.” Gender and Society 20(5):657-677. [↩]
- Cotter, David A., Joan M. Hermsen, and Reeve Vanneman. 2004. Gender inequality at work. New York: Russell Sage. [↩]