Work

Long Before #MeToo, Researchers Saw Troubling Trends for Women at Work

Why did gender sociologists miss the possible role of harassment in slowing down gender equality?

Exasperated female office worker sitting at typewriter.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images.

While #MeToo and countless stories of sexual harassment across industries have been a major awakening to many about just how hostile many American workplaces remain to women, sociologists have been concerned for many years about slowed progress toward gender equality. In 2010, Paula England, professor of sociology at New York University, published a sobering set of findings: The gender revolution that started in the ’60s and caught full steam in the ’70s and ’80s had stalled. And England had a few ideas why.

I reached out to England to find out what she found so concerning in 2010, and whether she might have underestimated the role of harassment in creating the inequality she observed. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Haley Swenson: What kinds of trends were you observing when you published your article on the uneven and stalled gender revolution?

Paula England: There was a long-term trend starting as early as 1960—an increase in the proportion of women who were employed for pay as opposed to being at home. Women’s employment went up in the ’60s. It went up a lot in the ’70s and ’80s. And then, starting sometime in the ’90s, it leveled off.

Percentage of U.S. Men and Women Employed, 1962-2007

There were a few years when it went down 1 or 2 percentage points around 2000 and then the media had a sort of hysterical discussion about the “Opt-Out Revolution.” That wasn’t a revolution. The revolution was the increase in women’s employment overall. But there hasn’t been much increase since sometime in the ’90s.

And the other thing that’s really important is what kinds of jobs women are holding. There are measures of how sex-segregated jobs are.

Sex Segregation of Fields of Study for U.S. Bachelor Degree Recipients, 1971-2006

If the labor force is, say, 40 percent women, to get every job to 40 percent women, how many people would you need to move around to different jobs? I mean, not that you’re really going to do that, but that gives you some measure of how segregated things are. That’s the segregation index. And that segregation index in jobs went down in the ’70s and ’80s. It kept going down but less steeply in the ’90s, and it went down by even less in the 2000s.

Similarly, with the sex gap in pay: Progress has either slowed down or just completely stalled out.

There’s not very many things in which there is actually a reversal. So that’s the good news. But there are lots of things where progress has slowed down or even stopped.

Also, the gender revolution was really uneven. If you think about the changes since the ’60s, it’s been about women changing what they are doing and what they’re allowed to do by the system, by employers, by society in general. Women go into the workforce and take paid jobs instead of being full-time homemakers. Women get the kinds of education that lead to male occupations. But there’s been much less change in men’s roles.

There has been some increase in men’s participation in child care and some increased participation in housework. But the change in men’s roles at home has been small compared to the change in women’s roles. That’s one thing that puts a brake on further change in women’s roles. How are women’s careers going to be equal to men’s if they’re always doing way more than half of the household work and the child rearing?

Men didn’t change their roles as much partly because they had less incentive to change. That’s because all the things that women traditionally did aren’t very well rewarded, because our culture hasn’t respected them very much. So if men move to traditionally female occupations, they earn less. If they become stay-at-home dads, they gain time with kids, but lose money. Also there’s been a cultural stigmatization of men who do anything seen as feminine—more so than when women do something seen as masculine.

What has your reaction been watching all these stories come out about workplaces and sexual harassment?

One thing that strikes me is how the study of sexual harassment really hasn’t been a strongly emphasized part of academic studies of gender inequality at all.

Research on gender inequality of many types has grown wildly since the 1970s. People study women’s work/family conflicts. They study employer discrimination based on either gender or sometimes motherhood. They study how these things affect what jobs women hold, how their careers advance, and the gender gap in pay. We have lots of research on all of that. But when you see the number of these reports of sexual harassment, it makes me wonder if this may be a bigger facet of gender inequality than academic researchers have realized.

People have studied harassment as a legal issue and a personal issue. But the study of it has not been mainstreamed into core areas of research on gender inequality.

We don’t really know how big of a factor, but all this outpouring of people’s experiences certainly suggests it’s a pretty large factor.

And these experiences of harassment could have labor market effects?

Exactly.

One of the things that’s really striking in some of these very public cases is that sometimes the men involved were good feminists in the sense that they supported feminist causes and even did things to advance some women’s careers. They talked a good line. And yet they had a sense of their own personal entitlement to touch women’s bodies whether the women liked it or not. It’s really quite shocking how those two things can go together.

Another thing I’ve been studying in recent years is sexuality among college students and the so-called hookup culture, by which people mean an acceptance of casual sex outside an exclusive relationship. The idea that this could be acceptable for women sounds like progress in what women can do, and there is some truth to that. But there’s also a lot of sexual assault. In one sense men and women have never been more equal in terms of how much education they’re getting. They’re studying in the same classrooms and sometimes studying the same subjects. But the new sexual standard is really more relaxed for men than women; many men hold a double standard. They respect women less for engaging in casual sex, but they don’t respect themselves or their male friends less. That is quite discriminatory. This isn’t a kind of discrimination we have any laws about, but it’s a little bit like having a workplace in which you have expectations of equality and career progression and also harassment.

Sexual harassment, sexual assault, and the double standard show you ways in which the gender revolution isn’t very complete. What would it be like to have equal standards by which men and women are judged for casual liaisons? What would it be like if the probability of experiencing nonconsensual sex was no higher for women than men?

What do we still need to know? What do you think the research should tackle next?

Regarding sexual harassment and assault, I think we need to find out how much these experiences have actually influenced women’s careers. And what does that look like? Like they avoid working for a person that might otherwise be a real career booster to avoid his lecherousness? Is it that they decide to leave an uncomfortable situation and lose seniority? Do men retaliate when women say no?

We also need to know what kinds of policies firms or HR departments can roll out that will really curb harassment.  What policies will make men or women feel that they just can’t harass without serious consequences? I think we need policies that work to prevent the behavior. Sometimes it seems that our existing policies do a better job reducing the legal liability of employers than deterring bad behavior.

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