Occupation sex segregation was first used by Gross, to describe women’s and men’s concentration into different occupations. Although there have been dramatic gains in female participation in the labour force, segregation has remained a universal and enduring aspects of labour markets around the world (England, 1982). The difference in occupations and earnings has been documented empirically in numerous studies. Reskin (1993) demonstrates that out of every hundred women about 57 would have to switch to predominantly male employment for the distribution of sexes to be equal across detailed occupations.
These patterns of segregation have left women concentrated into particular sectors of the economy, resulting in unequal outcomes and opportunities and representing reasons to be concerned. This is far more than physical separation, “it is a fundamental process in societal inequality” (Reskin, 1993). As a result of these detrimental consequences this phenomenon has received an abundance of often contradictory theoretical explanations. Rational choice represents the supply side of these explanations and forms an extremely influential and popular theory in understanding the occupational sex segregation in the labour force.
Indeed, economics has become defined around a paradigm of rational choice (England, 2003). Despite its value some economists are critical of the narrow economistic conception of this theory, although to widen it perpetuates the risk of making it tautologically useless (Blackburn et. al 1999). Thus this essay will focus primarily on the rational choice represented through the Human capital theory (HCT). The effects of this theory have been studied extensively in recent years, but despite its intuitive appeal many have agreed it lacks empirical support, questioning some of the principle assumptions of the theory.
Combined with a ‘glut of explanations’ (England 1984) surrounding occupational segregation there has been a decline in enthusiasm for this approach, but with the absence of suitable replacements the theory still remains a powerful explanatory tool. The aim of this essay is to critically evaluate the explanatory power of rational choice in offering an account of occupational sex segregation. The HCT theory views the individual as being rational actors whom are able to make decision about their investments in things that will bring about changes in their own capital (Becker, 1962).
Accordingly jobs with higher status and pay are a direct reward for personal investment (Becker 1962); it follows that man’s greater pay relative to women is related fundamentally to human capital. In its simplest form, HCT identifies a number of assumptions which account for this. Firstly, women, by virtue of spending time in domestic work and child rearing are prevented from investing in human capital. This is combined with the demographic generalisation that the average age of marriage is 30. 6yrs for men and 28. yrs for women (UK, 2001 census) which equate to longer time in the labour market and thus greater accumulation of human capital for the husband relative to the wife. This is formed into an explanation of occupational segregation as the difference in wage makes it economically rational to prioritize the employment of the higher wage earner (the male), while the women take responsibility for household work. Furthermore, this is self self-reproducing (Blackburn et. al 2002) as the relative differences in pay between the sexes is increased it equated to greater prioritisation.
This arrangement is logically sound and mutually beneficial for both partners, assuming they stay together in the long term. However, this does not form a complete account of occupational segregation as it is unable to explain the observable employment differences between single members of society. Polachek (1981) extends the theory to incorporate intermittent labour force participation and aims to describe how ration choice-human capital explanations can be applied to society as a whole. His theory is based on the assumption that women choose employment in order to maximise life-time earnings.
He argues that due to women’s unpaid labour demands, women’s participation in the labour force will be more discontinuous than male participation. Their absence from employment will result in skill ‘depreciation’, which is simultaneously combined with forgone appreciation of human capital by virtue of being unable to accrue on the job training (England 1982). It is therefore economically rational for women who plan to spend more time away from the labour market to choose occupations with lower penalties of human capital while absence, so, upon return they maintain a lower wage drop (Anker 1997).
Polachek finds evidence (using occupational categories) that employees taking time out the labour force have larger wage drops in male dominated occupations than female dominated occupations. Many other work has lent its support the HCTs assumptions. Waite and Berryman (1985 in Okamoto et al, 1999) demonstrated that those who expect continuous employment aspire to employment in less traditionally female occupations, Bridges (1989) found that men and women rate occupational values differently, this includes the ease of re-entering jobs after child rearing.
As a result of the empirical support, Polachek places great confidence in his theory, stating that “differences in labour force commitment alone account for much of the difference in professional and menial employment. If women were to have full commitment to the labour force, the number of women professionals would increase by 35 percent”. He concludes, “such results (although viewed as measure of potential change) illustrate that life cycle labour choice participation patterns are related to rational career choices” (Polachek, 1981).
Thus he argues rational choice-HCT is able to provide a ‘powerful explanation’ for the difference in earnings and occupational segregation present in the labour force. This theory is grounded in the assumptions of the rational choice theory, where women choose female occupations with the ‘safer’ characteristics these occupations entail. If the evidence presented by Polachek is to be believed rational choice if fundamental to the perpetration of occupational segregation. However, despite its ‘exploratory power’ this neoclassical theory has evoked a large volume of criticism, leading to its dismissal by many sociologists.
Firstly , Okamoto and England (1999) contest the supposition that people make rational employment decisions based on optimising behaviour of lifetime earnings. This assumes perfect labour market information on the part of the actors, which in reality is rarely the situation and forms a fundamental weakness of the theory. They argue that the HCT gives too much emphasis on women having “information and computational acumen than is realistic”, consequently, women are far less knowledgeable that the HCT implies.
Without this ‘perfect information’ it would follow that such rationalist behaviour is unfeasible. In reality the ability to know in future whether or not to have children and the possibility of planning intermittent employment depends on a number of uncontrolled variables in a person’s life course, making any prediction impossible or improbable at best. This argument is supported by Gerson (1985, in Okamoto et al 1999), using qualitative interviews, demonstrates that women’s lives take many unexpected turns.
Furthermore, if one still maintains that having children is a realistic expectation for many young women, it seems unreasonable to suggest that they choose certain occupations in expectation of their future decision to have children (Blackburn et. al 2002). Okamoto and England (1999) extend this and maintain that even if women were to have future employment and relationship knowledge, it is still impractical to assume that they are able to identify which employment would be best suited to maximise their life-time earnings.
This casts doubt on peoples ability or willingness to make life-cycle decisions which will lead to occupational segregation. Many have also questioned the empirical evidence supporting the Rational choice-HCT. Among the most vocal critics is England (1982, 1984) who finds ‘contrasting and limited empirical evidence’ to support Polachek’s conclusions. Her criticisms are twofold; firstly she shows that there is no evidence to support the notion that the penalties of depreciation and forgone appreciation for intermittency are less in female than male dominated occupation.
In addition, there has been no evidence to support claims that female dominated occupations have higher starting wages as predict by the HCT. On the contrary starting wages are higher in male occupations than female occupations at every level of experience (Corcoran et. al 1984). The criticisms, if correct, suggest the decision to choose female occupations are assumed to be irrational in terms of economic returns, contrary to the position taken by the HCT. England (1982) argues “there is no evidence that plans for intermittent employment make women’s choice of traditionally female occupations economically rational”.
Secondly she argue that evidence demonstrates that women with more discontinuous employment history are no more likely to choose female dominated jobs than women with continuous work histories (England, 1982). Both these criticisms question fundamental implications of Polachek’s thesis and lead England (1982) to concluded that “Human Capital theory has not generated an explanation of occupational sex segregation that fits the evidence”. These add up to form the criticism expressed by Pratt and Hanson (1999) who regard the HCT as ‘overly rationalist’ in nature.
As the HCT has been defined around the paradigm of rational choice, it therefore hinges fundamentally on the validity of this concept, so to dispute this theory damages the very foundations of the HCT and the place of rational choice in explaining occupational segregation. However, before rational choice is consigned to history, many scholars have raised questions concerning the adequacy of the empirical tests used to contradict it. Many argue (Pratt and Hanson 1992. Polachek, 1985) that any dismissal of rational choice-HCT is premature.
They identify that a fairly narrow range of indicators for labour force discontinuity have been examined, particularly the effects of working full-time or part time (Pratt and Hanson, 1992), and Polachek (1985) has criticised much of England’s work for using empirical tests that are inconsistent with the human capital model. The problem lies with measuring such a phenomenon with indirect empirical evidence, which make it equally difficult to both support and refute such claims.
Given the mixed support from past studies it is difficult to completely dismiss the rational choice-HCT. Testament to this is the abundance of literature surrounding the theory, the criticisms have not led to its rejection, the theory remains, somewhat battered, but still standing. Despite many of the criticism, the logic of the rational choice, in the reality of every day experience, seems undeniable in perpetrating segregation, at least within the household.
Further contention for the theory lies with critics who frequently attempt to draw the possible explanations away from the human capital theory, advocating instead the interplay between very different characteristics outside the rational choice paradigm. Sociologists share the view that labour markets are “structured into niches characterised by uncompensated advantages and disadvantages” and highlight the “reciprocal effects of gender-role socialisation, discrimination by employers, and institutional arrangements” (England et. al, 1988). A vast amount of empirical evidence has been found that advocates these alternative theories.
Those on the supply side, of which the HCT is one, are involved with employers’ choice, and the demand side is concerned with employer and institutional preference acting against female entry into the labour force. These alternative theories number many, and there are many variations which will not be touched on. One of the most widely recognised supply-side explanations are socialisation sex-role theories. This explains occupational segregation through cultural transmission, by focusing on “different attitudes, aspirations, and expectations that result from the socialisation process” (Okamoto et. al 1999).
There is some evidence to suggest that gender typing is a process that begins early in life and influences later economic behaviour through the development of different preferences and skills considered to be appropriate with the cultural stereotypes of gender. This predisposes different genders to choose certain occupations. Critics of HCT theory emphasise that by accepting as a given the existing divisions in labour, it fails to penetrate relations within the family-household” (Pratt and Hanson, 1999). I would argue that socialisation may provide explanations for many of the assumptions which underlie the rational choice theory.
Furthermore a large body of research has compared socialisation with HCT. Okamoto and England (1999) found that the gender socialisation perspective ‘posits a long-term effect of gendered attitudes and aspirations found in youth on occupational segregation’ whilst in the same research they found limited support for the human capital theory. The demand side can be broadly characterised as discriminatory and institutional factors. The existence of such theories runs contrary to the logic of neoclassical theory which maintains that discrimination is simply not sustainable in a competitive market.
However, explanations come in a variety of forms and emphasises discrimination against women in employers hiring practices in certain occupation. Employers are effectively gatekeepers to jobs, thus unavoidable employers’ preferences and actions contribute to the segregation of men and women into different professions (Beller, 1982). This implies that women face barriers to entry of occupations, thus reducing the demand for women relative to men, resulting in them becoming segregated into certain occupations which do not posses such barriers.
Research comparing discrimination and the human capital theory frequently found discrimination to be the dominant theory, emphasise the importance of both supply and demand side, but tending to privilege the latter in accounting for the “lion’s share of segregation” (Okamoto and England 1999). Reskin (1993) states ‘there is no doubt that discriminatory practices have consigned millions of women to sex-typical jobs”. These theories are particularly devastating to rational choice explanations as rational decisions are dependents on what is attainable.
This is emphasised by Pratt and Hanson (1999) who state, “women’s preferences are not independent of and causally prior to the occupational structure; they are themselves shaped by the existing opportunities and constraints”. These mechanisms operate irrespective of optimising behaviour on the part of women and leave no room for rational choice. However, little empirical evidence exists to support the relative exploratory power of these discriminatory explanations and have proven illusive to document (Polachek 1985). Conclusions for discrimination usually rest on indirect evidence and what is left by other statically measures.
Additionally many of these opponents have aimed to play down the effects of labour supply factors altogether, this “is not only theoretically misguided… (but also) not particularly convincing” (Pratt and Hansen 1991). Consequently these different theories do not refute the HCT but serve to emphasise the pluralist character of occupational segregation which has more causes than any one theory can predict. In a further attempt to reclaim the analysis from the human capital theory Pratt and Hanson level a well considered critique of Polachek’s theory.
This argument rests on the fact that neoclassical paradigms do not explicitly incorporate geography, and thus the rational choice-human capital theory is fundamentally limited in its explanatory power. They advocate instead, an extension of Hagerstrands’ (1970) influential space-time geography, which recognises that labour markets are spatially segmented and that workers are not perfectly mobile but are severely restricted in the jobs they can reach in their time budget. This explains occupational segregation through the additional day-to-day space time constraints faced by women relative to men.
These are socially ascribed by gender roles (largely due to more space-time constraints in non-employment) which tend to be more spatially and temporally binding for women than men and increase the cost of long commutes. This is supported by other work finding that women have lower levels of space-time access to urban opportunities and face more space-time constraint relative to men (Mei-Po Kwan, 1998); and literature emphasising the role of availability of child-care facilities which “shape (women’s)spatial choice set and influences their opportunities with having a job” (Van Ham et. l 2004).
These constraints are paired with the existing structure of the labour market, in which male and female dominated occupation have different locations in space and offer different attributes (i. e. beneficial hours). The combination of these factors resulting in concentration of the sexes into different occupations. This interpretation suggests that coherent with the human capital explanation it is women’s family responsibilities that structure women’s labour force participation and part time employment, but, this is more pervasive than the HCT suggests.
Secondly it maintains that the human capital theory places emphasis on the wrong set of explanatory variables (labour force discontinuity); occupational segregation is instead explained through space-time constraints of the present moment which “loom much larger in women’s experience than a concern about immediate wages, let alone complex lifetime investment-payoff calculations” (Pratt and Hanson 1991).
Women do not have the luxury of choosing from the full range of job opportunities as “the full range does not exist” (Pratt and Hanson 1991); women are forced into female jobs while being excluded from male occupations leading them to disadvantaged segments of the labour market. This entails that there is no space for rational choice of utility maximising behaviour to operate and indeed such a theory would be ‘overly rationalist’. In conclusion, the diverse range of arguments have shown that occupational sex segregation is a multi-faceted problem resulting from a variety of social and economic factors deeply engrained in society.
As a result, consensus regarding possible underlying causes has been difficult to maintain and theories remain disjointed and contradictory. Rational choice fails to acknowledge these social and cultural factors which are frequently regarded as epiphenomenal in much of the conventional neoclassical explanations. Furthermore, by focusing on maximising earnings over time the rational choice-HCT has neglected decisions related to time affordances over space, which has provided another dimension to the debate and forms a convincing argument in understanding occupational segregation.
These theories effectively undermine rational choice, by instead identifying that women’s labour force is structured into niches (England et. al, 1988), causing segregation irrespective of employees decisions. As a result, the theories single narrow focused approach has failed to provide a durable explanation and can only be regarded as an incomplete account of segregation. However, it is arguable that problems faced by the theory stem predominantly from the fragile, indirect evidence used to support it (a problem inherent in many of the theories).
This inevitably makes it difficult to confirm its existence, but is too frequently used to necessitate its dismissal, especially in light of equally weak evidence supporting alternatives. It is argued here that the greatest weakness of Polachek’s explanation lies in its overly rationalist interpretation of women’s optimising behaviour which fails to account for the real life experiences of women to make such incalculable choices.
A broader conceptualisation of HCT, emphasising more immediate rational choices could hold more value in providing a durable explanation. Despite the contested nature of its contribution, the presence of rational choice seems plausibly, as the everyday prioritisation of employment within households provides a logically sound strategy for maximise family income whilst simultaneously resulting in occupational segregation. As a consequently its potential explanatory power makes it difficult to ignore.
To extend the knowledge and provide more durable explanations there is a greater need to integrate the contributions from many theories particularly the supply and demand side explanations. Such an interdisciplinary approach, although not straightforward, has the potential to identify and combine the qualities of many theories and yield more inclusive, concrete explanations for a phenomenon for which understanding have advanced little in past decades (England 1984).