What the Data Says About Women in Management Between 1980 and 2010

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Advancement toward gender equality at work has slowed since the 1990s for three major reasons: people’s attitudes stopped becoming more gender egalitarian, occupations stopped gender integrating, and the gender wage gap began decreasing at slower rates. Sociologist Paula England has called this phenomenon an “uneven and stalled” gender revolution, and there have been dozens of studies showing how the progress in gender equality experienced during and immediately after the feminist movement of the 1970s has not been sustained through the 1990s and 2000s.

Does this stalled revolution play out in management positions, too? And if so, how? To explore this, I used data on full-time managers obtained from the U.S. Census and American Community Survey for the years 1980 and 2010 to examine three major factors that contribute to gender equality in the labor force: women’s representation in management, the occupational gender segregation among managers, and the gender wage gaps that vary across managerial occupations. By examining all three of these aspects, I found that the shifts in managerial gender equality are extremely complicated – with progressive change in one measure coupled with backward tendencies in others.

First, the good news. Women’s representation in management is higher than it’s ever been. Of the nearly 4.5 million new jobs in management created since 1980, women have obtained the majority of them.

Second, the not-so-good news. The rise in women’s representation in management has been accompanied by a large increase in the occupational gender segregation of managers. In 1980 not a single management occupation was majority women. By 2010, however, we find that some occupations are female-dominated while others are male-dominated. Female managers are concentrated in fields that emphasize people-centered caring skills, while men are concentrated in fields dealing with production-centered skills.

Third, the bad news. The occupations where female managers were concentrated by 2010 were also those with the largest gender wage gaps.

I’ll highlight the data from each finding below.

The Composition of Management Is Changing, with Women Making Up the Majority of New Positions

While the gender revolution may have stalled in recent decades, the management revolution remains in full swing. From 1980 to 2010, there was an increase of 4.5 million managers in the U.S. (full-time, not self-employed, and between the ages of 18 and 65) – a change of nearly 90%.

Not only has the number of managers increased, but the composition of management has also changed. Of new management positions, 2.6 million were occupied by women and 1.9 million by men. In other words, women make up the majority of new management jobs created from 1980 to 2010. And while men still make up the majority of managers in total, their share of 60% is far smaller than the three-quarters they held in 1980.

In addition, diversity among women in management has improved, albeit marginally. While white women have filled the largest share of new management jobs, minority women have also made gains, with 18% of all new management positions being filled by women of color. Nonetheless, minority women remain underrepresented in management compared with white women and especially with white men. Despite obtaining 7% of new management positions, black women were severely underrepresented in 2010, constituting only 4% of all managers. Similar trends exist among men, where black men’s gains in managerial representation were the smallest among all groups.

These findings, while not all good news, do seem promising for women in management. Not only have we seen convergence in the share of management positions held by women and men since 1980, but women have also obtained a greater portion of the new management jobs that were created over the past 30 years.

But the composition of management is only one measure of gender equality.

Management, When Analyzed by Field, Is Deeply Segregated by Gender

Managerial jobs differ tremendously in power, prestige, and salary. Have the 2.6 million women who entered management between 1980 and 2010 evenly distributed across all management occupations? Or are they concentrated in certain occupations, leaving others dominated by men?

The chart below shows the distribution and representation of women across 11 management occupations in 1980 and 22 management occupations in 2010. (The reason there are twice as many management occupations in 2010 is that the large increase in managers during this time span coincided with the greater recognition of different management occupations. For example, so few computer and information systems managers existed in 1980 that data used here did not record this occupation. By 2010, however, there were over 40,000 of these managers – a large enough number to warrant an occupational category.)

In 1980 not a single management occupation was majority women, although medical and health service managers came close. Even in fields with mostly female workers, such as education, it was primarily men who managed female employees. The general story from 1980, then, is that relatively few women worked as managers and those who did manage were in positions usually held by men.

Turning to 2010, a good number of managerial occupations have become female-dominated. Medical and health service managers, who had the highest proportion of women in 1980, became female-dominated in 2010, as women now make up 70% of this category. Other managerial occupations that became majority-female were education administration, human resources, property and real estate, and finance. Social and community service managers – a new occupation to emerge since 1980 – is also majority women. Several positions, however, remain dominated by men. Women still make up less than one-quarter of chief executives and public administrators. Among the new positions to emerge since 1980, women make up less than 10% of architecture, engineer, and construction managers. They are also vastly underrepresented as managers of general operations, computer information, industrial production, and transportation.

With the exception of finance, the female-majority occupations all entail job characteristics that include caring for others, while the female-minority occupations are more production and “thing-focused,” characterized by the manipulation of objects. These differences, of course, resonate with broad gender stereotypes of masculinity and femininity.

Taken together, examining the concentration of female managers across occupations adds another layer to the gender revolution in management. While women have made major inroads in management since the 1980s, gains have not been close to even across occupations.

Is This Really a Bad Thing?

One way to answer this question is to look at how the concentration of women in some management occupations, and their absence in others, affects their wages. In other words, while it is certainly good news that women have made major inroads into management, has the unevenness of women’s representation across occupations stunted progress in closing the gender wage gap?

The chart below illustrates the relationship between the percentage of women in an occupation and the gender wage gap for that position in 1980 and 2010, controlling for personal and work-related factors. In 1980 the gender wage gap was lower in occupations where women were highly represented, but by 2010 the effect was in the opposite direction – the gender wage gap is larger in positions with a higher proportion of women.

This results in a substantial wage penalty for female managers in general, since a large portion of women’s increasing representation in management is concentrated in “feminized” fields where gender wage gaps are the most extreme. The chart below shows the gender wage gaps for 22 management occupations in 2010. Many of those with the largest gaps, such as finance, property and real estate, and medical and health services, are also those that have had the greatest increase in women’s representation since 1980. The lowest gender wage gaps, on the other hand, are found primarily in occupations with the smallest proportion of women, such as architecture and engineering and transportation. Perhaps most striking, though maybe not all that surprising, is that women are paid less than men across all management occupations.

So, back to our question: These results strongly indicate that, yes, the current concentration of female managers in some fields and not others is a big deal. Not only do female managers working in feminized fields experience wage penalties, but the occupations with the largest increase in women are also those with the biggest gender wage gaps.

These three trends underscore the paradox of the gender revolution broadly, and more specifically in management. Yes, we’ve seen amazing progress in many measures of gender equality over the past several decades. Women have surpassed men in nearly all educational measures, and their gains in the workforce constitute one of the largest changes in the history of labor. These are huge advances that should be celebrated. But equal numbers do not always translate into equality itself.

Gender, as a system of stratification, has a sneaky way of reproducing itself. As women enter management, gender seems to operate as an organizing logic so that women end up in caring-centered occupations and men in occupations that focus on the production of goods. Previous research has shown that this sorting is due to both hiring discrimination, where women are seen to have a “lack of fit” with occupations that emphasize production-centered masculine traits, and the consequences of gender socialization, where people feel personal preferences for gender-typed occupations. But, as my research shows, even when women do work in the same occupations as men, inequality is largely maintained through gender wage gaps.

There is, however, potential for improvement, particularly as women enter corporate leadership. A growing body of research suggests that when women obtain high-level management positions, they often act as agents of change to promote gender equality in workplaces. My own recent research has shown that the feminization of human resources is creating an opportunity for women to promote positive change more broadly, as female HR managers may use their influence to support workplace gender equity.

But one need not be a human resource manager, or even a woman, to promote gender equality. Any manager can do this work by being cognizant of the tendency to rely on gender as an organizing logic for hiring, promotion, and salary – and to resist that tendency. We can take inventory of our current workplaces: Are women and men managing different departments? Are they paid equally? Once we see patterns, we can implement programs that effectively promote equity and diversity in the workplace. According to Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, organizations with diversity managers, task forces, and intentional mentoring structures report improvements in the representation of women and racial minorities.

To move toward gender equality, it’s critical to recognize how patterns of disadvantage have shifted over time and respond proactively. Organizations that want to lead this charge will be those that go beyond the focus on gender representation and consider the way gender inequality is reproduced through patterns of segregation and pay gaps.


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