Female empowerment leads to more gender segregation in the workplace, study suggests

  • Date

    Thu 27 Jan 22

portrait photo of Professor Gijsbert Stoet

Female empowerment in wealthier countries means teenage girls are more likely to aspire to “sex-typical occupations”, suggest researchers from the University of Essex and the University of Missouri. 

The international investigation into the life choices made by nearly half a million 15–16-year-olds in 80 countries discovered girls were more likely to aim for people-oriented occupations – such as social work, teaching, or healthcare. 

The study, published in PLOS ONE, suggests the ‘gender equality paradox’ is more pronounced in nations with high levels of equality such as Finland, where for every female looking for a ‘blue collar’ or engineering role there were seven boys. 

In countries with less empowerment in politics, education or health - such as Morocco or the United Arab Emirates – these ratios dropped to around two boys for every girl. 

The research led by Professor Gijsbert Stoet, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex, and Professor David Geary, from the University of Missouri, suggests that gender equality allows women to choose occupations that match their interests when not constrained by economics. 

They argue that empowerment leads to greater levels of wealth, which in turn allows younger generations the freedom to choose occupations. 

Professor Stoet said biological factors likely play a role and suggests female empowerment leads to greater gender segregation in the workplace. 

He however does not see the findings as a cause for concern as youngsters are free to pursue their preferred professions. 

“Teenage boys and girls differ considerably in what they expect to do as a job at age 30,” he said. 

“The effects are largest in the countries where most people would expect the smallest differences. 

“Their choices are likely a reflection of deeply built-in tendencies we see all over the world, but which express themselves most strongly in countries where adolescents are the least constraint by economic limitations. 

“As long as young adults are happy with their choices, we do not need to be worried about them picking sex-typical occupations.” 

The study used data from the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment, test scores, national wealth levels and the Global Gender Gap Index.  

It also showed more boys universally aspired to what the researchers describe as ‘things-oriented’ roles involving machinery or tools than girls. 

In Britain and the United States for every girl aspiring to a things-oriented occupation, there were more than five boys; the opposite was found for people-oriented occupations.

The authors argue gender segregation in occupations builds on adolescents’ occupational interests. 

They say that as these differences are universally observed and are larger in wealthier countries, the authors conclude that biological factors likely play a role in gender segregation in interests and work.

Professor Geary said: “The sex differences in interest in things - and people-oriented occupations were not only found throughout the world but mirror those found 100 years ago.

“The results are consistent across time and place, in keeping with inherent sex differences that make some activities more attractive to adolescent boys than girls and others more attractive to girls than boys. 

“The results confirm the gender-equality paradox, that is, sex differences are often larger in gender-equal nations.”