Occupational Segregation

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Occupational Segregation





Occupational racial/ethnic and sex segregation—the separation of non-Hispanic white men and women and workers of color into different occupations—is more than a pattern of physical separation of the races and sexes at work. Rather, occupational segregation is a fundamental process in sustaining and perpetuating social inequality because occupations dominated by white men tend to offer more pay, fringe benefits, access to promotions, training, and authority than occupations dominated by white women and people of color. Occupational segregation also limits the bargaining power of minorities and white women, making it difficult for them to improve their labor-market positions. Segregation at work also limits female and minority workers’ access to health insurance and retirement benefits. In no small way, then, occupational segregation reduces the quality of life for white women and racial/ethnic minority workers and plays an integral role in keeping a greater share of minorities compared to whites below the poverty line.


Occupational racial/ethnic and sex segregation are common and persistent features of the U.S. labor market. In fact, it is rare to find Latinos, Asians, blacks, and other racial/ethnic minorities working in the same occupations. Within and across racial/ethnic groups, men and women are also segregated into different occupations. In their book Women and Men at Work (2002), Irene Padavic and Barbara Reskin documented the top occupations in the year 2000 for men and women belonging to selected racial/ethnic categories. The top occupation for black women was nurses’ aide, orderly; for black men it was truck driver. For Hispanic women it was cashier and Hispanic men, truck driver. White women’s top occupation was secretary, while white men’s was salaried manager/administrator.

The occupations employing white men, white women, and male and female racial/ethnic minorities have different pay levels. Median pay levels in the occupations that employ mainly non-Hispanic whites (henceforth, whites) versus those that employ mainly minorities are significantly different, given their skill levels. According to the 2000 Census Bureau (see Fronczek and Johnson 2003), roughly 36 percent of employed whites and 45 percent of employed Asians work in managerial/professional occupations, where the 2000 median annual pay level was $42,844. Employed blacks, Hispanics of any race, and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders were concentrated mainly in sales and office occupations where the median annual pay level was just below $30,000.

Although the causes of racial/ethnic occupational segregation and occupational sex segregation are similar, occupational sex segregation is more prevalent in the United States. In other words, it is less common for women and men to work in the same occupation than it is for whites and minorities to hold the same occupation, mainly because racial/ethnic minorities make up a much smaller share of the labor force than women. The U.S. Department of Labor Bureau speculates that minorities will be 29 percent of the labor force by 2008, but women already comprise over 60 percent of the labor force. So, for example, integrating male minority workers into occupations dominated by white men is easier than integrating the tens of millions of female labor force participants into male-dominated occupations (see Padavic and Reskin 2002).


Social scientists have put forth a number of theories to explain the persistent occupational segregation of white men, white women, and racial/ethnic minorities. This section reviews some of the major theoretical explanations of occupational segregation. The review begins with supply-side explanations of segregation, or explanations that focus on individuals’ behaviors, then moves to demand-side explanations, or those that focus on the behaviors and actions of employers. The theories have related and overlapping components because the ideologies of race and gender are widespread in the U.S. labor market and beyond.

The first set of supply-side theoretical explanations view job seekers’ personal choices and incentives as the root cause of occupational segregation. For example, gender-role socialization theory argues that women and men pursue different lines of work because of differences in their childhood socialization (i.e., girls are given dolls and raised to be nurturers; boys are given trucks and taught to be aggressive). Although there is little empirical support for the socialization explanation of occupational sex segregation, it remains a point of debate among researchers.

Human capital theory is another supply-side explanation of occupational sex segregation. According to this theory, women are more oriented toward family than men, so they seek lower levels of education, training, and work experience than men. Consequently, women and men are not as prepared for the same occupations. The education gap between employed women and men is closing, but they tend to major in different subjects and men have more job training and work experience, on average, than women. Many researchers view these differences as a function of demand-side factors rather than women’s choice (see Padavic and Reskin 2002).

Supply-side theories look to somewhat different prelabor market forces to explain occupational racial/ethnic segregation. Supply-side theorists argue that discriminatory practices outside the labor market lead to racial residential segregation. As a result of residential segregation, whites and minorities have access to different schools. Because of the higher concentration of poverty among minorities, their neighborhood schools are not as well funded as the schools whites attend, so minorities enter the labor force with fewer job-related skills and lower quality education, on average, than whites. Consequently, minorities and whites are qualified for and hired into different occupations.

Even if their skills are similar, because of race-based stereotypes employers may perceive that whites have higher education levels, more job-related skills, and more work experience than racial/ethnic minorities. Phillip Moss and Charles Tilly’s interviews with urban employers, reported in their 2001 book Stories Employers Tell: Race, Skill, and Hiring in America, revealed that employers tend to stereotype racial/ethnic minorities (especially black men) as lacking “soft skills,” that is, nontechnical job skills such as friendliness, self-motivation, and responsibility. Almost half of the employers in their urban sample criticized black workers’ soft skills and technical skills (i.e., math ability, reading, writing, computer knowledge), while a smaller share criticized Latinos’ and Asians’ skills. Despite the real and perceived differences in white and minority job-related skills and education quality, these differences are not enough to explain the segregation of whites and racial/ethnic minorities at work.

A second and related theoretical explanation blames employers’ intentional racial and gender biases for occupational segregation. Some employers stereotype women as weak, emotional, and submissive, while they view men as aggressive, decisive, and strong. Thus, they see the sexes as suited to different types of work. Likewise, some scholars have asserted that employers’ stereotypes of minority workers channel whites into “good,” high-paying occupations and racial/ethnic minorities into poor, low-paying ones. Robert L. Kaufman explained in “Assessing Alternative Perspectives on Race and Sex Employment Segregation” (2002) that employers viewed jobs requiring high skill and authority as “inappropriate” for minority workers but considered jobs with poor working conditions, subservient tasks, low prestige, and low pay as “appropriate” for minorities. Of course, some race stereotypes operate in conjunction with stereotypes of women and men; for example, employers may stereotype black men as dishonest (see William Julius Wilson’s 1996 book When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor) and black women as single mothers.

Occupational segregation is not always the result of intentional processes to harm minorities and white women. Nonconscious cognitive processes may also pre-dispose employers to prefer hiring workers who share their race and sex. In the case of occupational race and sex segregation, this means that an Asian female employer may unintentionally favor an Asian female job applicant, perhaps by smiling more at her during the job interview or overlooking small problems on her job application. These nonconscious behaviors increase the likelihood that a job applicant who shares the employer’s race and sex will receive a job offer. Since most employers in charge of hiring in U.S. workplaces are white men, these nonconscious preferences mainly benefit white men.

A third theoretical explanation views occupational racial/ethnic and sex segregation as the result of discriminatory employment practices and policies. In one case, policies or rules designed to treat all applicants, regardless of their race or sex, equally can have a different, negative impact on racial/ethnic minorities and white women during the employment process. This phenomenon, known as disparate impact, can lead to occupational segregation. One example of a practice with disparate negative impact on women and racial/ethnic minorities is word-of-mouth recruitment. Although this recruitment practice is not motivated by discriminatory intent and is designed to treat all job applicants the same, because white men dominate most high-paying occupations and people tend to have social ties to others that share their race/ethnicity and sex, this practice systematically excludes women and minority members from white-male-dominated occupations.

Employment policies and rules can differently affect white women and minorities—what scholars refer to as disparate treatment. Disparate treatment occurs when an employer treats a worker or job applicant differently because of his or her race/ethnicity. For example, disparate treatment happens when an employer requires a Latina job applicant to score 50 out of 100 on an employment test to be considered for a job but hires a white female applicant with a score of 25 out of 100. Another example occurs when an employer refuses to hire a mother based on the assumption that as a mother, she is not committed to the labor force. One consequence of policies and practices that have a negative disparate impact or yield disparate treatment of the races and sexes is occupational segregation.

A fourth theoretical explanation, called spatial mismatch, identifies the physical space that separates inner-city (mainly minority) workers from suburban jobs as a contributing factor to the segregation of minority and white workers at work. The theory does not apply to explaining occupational sex segregation because women and men are not segregated outside of the workforce; women and men live in the same neighborhoods and the same households and attend the same schools. Spatial mismatch theory argues that racial/ethnic minority men and women are overrepresented in central cities. Because of the movement of businesses to the suburbs in the 1970s and the closing of urban manufacturing plants, few businesses remain in urban settings, and those that do often pay low wages. Whites, on the other hand, live mainly in suburban areas where businesses with high-paying jobs are plenty. Because transportation to the suburbs from central cities is often unavailable (or expensive) in many U.S. cities, minorities have limited access to good job opportunities and thus have little choice but to take low-paying occupations while whites take high-paying ones in the suburbs.


U.S. workplaces are characterized by the segregation of white men, white women, and racial/ethnic minorities into different occupations. This segregation has negative consequences for minority men and women and white women because the occupations in which they are concentrated pay less, award fewer promotions, offer fewer benefits, and have less authority than occupations filled mainly by white men. A number of factors—many of them overlapping— contribute to occupational segregation. Undoubtedly, race and gender-based stereotypes about the “appropriateness” of jobs for one sex or the other or one race/ethnicity or the other play a role in maintaining occupational segregation. Given the prevalence of residential segregation by race/ethnicity in U.S. cities, the de facto segregation of the races at school, the informal ways employers go about finding potential workers, the continued flow of good jobs out of inner cities, and the difficulty of proving disparate impact and disparate treatment, occupational segregation based on race/ethnicity and sex are likely to be common in workplaces of the future.

Although stereotypical thinking on the part of employers and racial segregation in neighborhoods and schools cannot be entirely eliminated, occupational segregation is not inevitable. Formal workplace policies and rules whose goal is the equal treatment of white women, white men, and minorities at work are necessary for ending occupational segregation. Most notably, employers will have to change the way they recruit workers. The common practice of recruiting job applicants through referrals from current workers (i.e., word-of-mouth recruiting) hurts minorities and white women because most high-paying occupations are dominated by white men, and more often than not, people refer others who share their race and sex. Formalizing the employment process is one way to remove barriers that prevent racial and gender integration at work. For example, companies can establish a race/sex-blind application process by having job applicants submit their job applicants on a computer in the first stage of the application process. A race/sex-blind application process minimizes the extent to which employers’ conscious hostility toward one race or sex or preference for workers of another race or sex matter in the employment process. Likewise, companies can establish equal employment offices to both monitor the employment process and help ensure the equal treatment of all applicants, regardless of their race or sex.

Changing the hiring process and establishing a system of oversight are only two small steps employers can take to integrate occupations. Cities can implement policies to integrate neighborhoods, design strategies to racially integrate public schools, and offer tax incentives for businesses with high-paying jobs to locate in neighborhoods predominated by racial/ethnic minorities. Communities can provide job training for workers interested in lines of work dominated by the opposite sex. Workplaces can subsidize childcare to help parents, especially women, remain in the labor force. As the nation’s workforce continues to diversify along racial and ethnic lines and women continue to comprise a large share of the labor force, all workers will benefit from integrated workplaces.

SEE ALSO Education, Racial Disparities; Labor Market; Racial Desegregation (U.S.); Sexism; Underemployment.


Fronczek, Peter, and Patricia Johnson. 2003. Occupations: 2000.U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Kaufman, Robert L. 2002. “Assessing Alternative Perspectives on Race and Sex Employment Segregation.” American Sociological Review 67 (4): 547–572.

Moss, Phillip, and Chris Tilly. 2001. Stories Employers Tell: Race, Skill, and Hiring in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Padavic, Irene, and Barbara F. Reskin. 2002. Women and Men at Work, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Tomaskovic-Devey, Donald. 1993. Gender and Racial Inequality at Work: The Sources and Consequences of Job Segregation. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.

U.S. Department of Labor. 2007. “Working in the 21st Century.”Available from http://www.bls.gov/opub/working/chart4.pdf.

Wilson, William Julius. 1996. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Knopf.

Julie A. Kmec

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Occupational Segregation

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Occupational Segregation