college majors and gender

Philip Cohen’s blog has a nice post on continuing gender desegregation in the American workforce. He notes that there remains a significant amount gender disparity in many occupations. He has many nice charts and graphs. The one above describes a recent increase in gender segregation for college majors.

When it comes to segregation of occupations, it helps to think the sources of segregation. Some are easy to overcome. For example, women students have shown great interest in the professions. So when cultural barriers were eliminated, we’ve seen enormous growth in female enrollments in areas like the law, medicine, and business.

However, there are also demand factors. For a variety of reasons, many of which are subject to debate, certain areas of work and education attract very few female students. These factors will be rather persistent. They will be hard to get rid of.

Thus, when I read Cohen’s blog post, I came to a different conclusion than he did. He sees a backslide, I see stasis. The 1960s represented the abolition of important cultural attitudes, and you saw an abrupt switch to a new regime. A massive one time social change. Now, you are stuck with demand factors that are hard to change. This suggests that you will see some fluctation around the equilibrium. So  I wouldn’t read too much into relatively small changes untill we have a few more time points.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 28, 2011 at 12:26 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

6 Responses

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  1. I agree with your interpretation of the data. That there seems to be the least gender disparity among retail supervisors where woman are more numerous. Of the college majors, business degrees remain about 50-50. Those facts may reflect McCloskey;s “bourgeois virtue” – capitalism brings fairness.

    What makes for the disparities seems not consistent to me. Social conservatism may be only a surface effect among truck drivers, but be very real in medicine. In other words, “maleness” may include inherent factors that reward travel and homelessness (or at least houselessness) that give statistical weight to truck drivers being men. Women as caregivers may explain the over-abundance of female nurses, or this may reflect the social conservatism of medicine. Either suggestion bears falsifiable study, of course.

    I recently took up D&D gaming. Women are clearly a minority though they do participate and are welcome. The same applies to my other hobby, numismatics. Contrasted againstnthe coin collectors, however, philatelics seems to have a larger proportion of women participating; but I am only occasionally a buyer and have never written for that hobby. To me, the question this raises is why there must be a perfect 50-50 (or, actually 51-49 women to men) in every slice of life.

    Given that opportunities are equal – and largely, they seem to be – then, other factors would have be discovered to explain the apparent gaps. We do not like to think that anatomy is destiny, but when it comes to basketball the inspirational example of Michael Jordan still holds out not much hope for us short folk.


    Michael Marotta

    October 28, 2011 at 3:46 pm

  2. @Michael: yes, there are other factors besides opportunities, but these factors tend to be social/cultural. The way to see this is to compare across locations and times. For instance, 150 years ago, secretaries were mostly male ( and the profession only opened to women when it began demanding fewer skills. Or look at medicine: in Soviet Russia, 2/3 of doctors were female (

    I teach a lot of students who are interested in law enforcement careers, so I can particularly speak to the changes there. Demand has changed, and in part that has been due to changes in recruiting practices. But there are many other factors that you would not necessarily notice on the surface that shape women’s interest in and willingness to participate in such field:
    –Are the social and intellectual aspects of law enforcement emphasized in recruiting and training, or is it the physical and brotherhood aspects?
    –Can women access safety equipment appropriate for their roles? Many departments do not adequately provision bulletproof vests designed for women’s bodies.
    –Have law enforcement agencies considered alternatives to traditional reactive policing, like community-based policing?
    –Will male officers within training academies and police departments respect women as partners, colleagues, and supervisors?
    –Are women able to access shifts for which child care is available? In many departments, women who are promoted are required to spend a period of time working the overnight shift, when child care facilities and even relatives are often not available, and research shows that women turn down promotions or leave the field because of this.



    October 28, 2011 at 4:31 pm

  3. I would like to see social sciences broken down into economics, poli sci, and sociology – would be interesting to know the gender balance for each of those.



    October 28, 2011 at 5:22 pm

  4. @Julia: I wrote about this before…

    Econ has 30% female PhDs, but 5-10% faculty representation. Poli sci and soc are way higher on both #s.



    October 28, 2011 at 5:24 pm

  5. […] college majors and gender « […]


  6. Reminds me of the finding that there are greater personality differences by gender in modern rather than traditional societies:
    So we should not be surprised that the entry of women into the modern workplace has resulted in distinct employment profiles.


    Wonks Anonymous

    October 28, 2011 at 6:54 pm

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