Gender segregation is the separation of individuals according to their gender or sex. It takes many forms in various social contexts, including schools, workplaces, religious organizations, sporting activities, and health facilities. The physical construction of public spaces, such as single-sex changing rooms and bathrooms, both reflects and reinforces gender segregation, as do cultural beliefs regarding the social roles of men and women. These divisions along gender lines result in part from historical and cultural assumptions about the meanings of gender (a term that emphasizes the socially constructed dimension of what it means to behave like a man or woman) and sex (a term that emphasizes the biological dimensions of designation as a man or woman).
As a result of these assumptions and beliefs, women and men may experience horizontal or vertical segregation. Evidence of horizontal segregation is the disproportionate number of women found in jobs or fields of study perceived as requiring nurturing qualities, such as elementary teacher or nurse, or of men disproportionately found in jobs or fields of study perceived as requiring manual labor or rational reasoning skills, such as construction or engineering. An example of vertical segregation is when men are more likely than women to hold leadership or supervisory positions within the same educational or job environment. Analysts frequently cite gender segregation as an influential determinant in maintaining contemporary inequalities, particularly in the economic sphere. However, in some instances gender segregation may ameliorate social inequalities. For example, a number of women’s colleges and historically black men’s and women’s colleges remain gender segregated as a means of countering prevailing norms imposed by dominant social groups.
Gender Segregation in Schools
In most cultures, girls at some point in history were denied access to institutions offering a formal education to boys. As a result of cultural beliefs regarding women’s familial roles, girls with economic means were often dissuaded from pursuing educational goals and instead steered to finishing schools and seminaries that would provide an education in morals and etiquette. In the United States during the latter part of the 19th century, abolitionist and women’s rights movements gained momentum, resulting in a number of colleges and universities opening their doors to women and racial minorities. Simultaneously, the number of women-only colleges steadily grew to accommodate the increasing number of women seeking higher education. However, during the mid-20th century, women’s access to colleges and universities slowed until demands for gender equality increased again in the 1960s. Most notably, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 enhanced women’s access to and within educational institutions. Title IX essentially prohibited schools from denying women both admittance and equal access to resources within publicly funded educational institutions.
In the United States, although girls and women have gained entry into most educational institutions, gender segregation continues in the subjects that students study and in how children play and work in schools. Researchers examining the social interactions of young children in traditional learning environments have long noted that boys and girls segregate themselves and that teachers or staff members sometimes encourage students to divide along gender lines. When in gender-segregated situations on the playground or in the classroom, boys and girls often differ in their actions and control of space, simultaneously fulfilling and creating gender “norms” in the process. Gender segregation also occurs in the later years, when students choose elective classes, sports activities, and programs of study. During the onset of adolescence, fewer girls than boys enroll in subjects such as math and science, and most sports activities are gender segregated (e.g., track, swimming, tennis) or single-sex (football, hockey, wrestling). In vocational programs, gender segregation is particularly visible, with a disproportionate number of girls studying child care and cosmetology and boys studying automotive repairs and woodworking. In colleges and universities, women have steadily enrolled in traditionally male-dominated programs, such as business and law, since the early 1970s. However, men are not moving as steadily into female-dominated fields, such as early education or nursing. Although more women than men currently receive postsecondary degrees, they remain under-represented at prestigious colleges and universities in educational programs leading to lucrative careers. Understanding the interrelationship of gender segregation and educational institutions with the construction of students’ educational aspirations is necessary to understand vertical and horizontal workplace gender segregation and gender inequality.
Workplace Gender Segregation
As with education, occupational gender segregation in the United States remained relatively stable until the 1970s, when it began to steadily decline, partly the result of changing cultural perceptions regarding women’s and men’s social roles and affirmative action policies and legislation. However, many researchers challenge the presumption that declines in occupational gender segregation represent substantial change in the gender segregation of the workplace. Women may have moved into all levels of occupations, but the jobs they attain within those occupational categories often remain divided along gender lines. For example, although many women are now entering the field of medicine, they tend to be clustered in lower-paying specialties such as geriatrics or general medicine. Additionally, men are more likely than women to have managerial authority and autonomy in the same workplace. Such horizontal and vertical gender segregation has dire economic effects for women, whose jobs often pay less than those traditionally held by men.
Although gender segregation, in part, may result from “supply side” or workers’ actions and preferences, researchers within the past 30 years have focused their attention on examining “demand side” or employers’ actions. Frequently, employers consciously or subconsciously make hiring and promotion decisions based on employees’ gendered personality characteristics or perceived family obligations (e.g., as breadwinner or caretaker). Such decisions frequently produce vertical and horizontal gender segregation. Even in countries with strong family policies, such as Sweden and Norway, workplace gender segregation persists, which demonstrates the deep-rooted processes producing both segregation and inequality. Consequently, recent theorists of gender segregation have focused on the gendering not only of individuals but of interactional and organizational processes at all levels of analysis—micro, meso, and macro. Understanding how processes and not just individuals are gendered provides important insights as to how social institutions play a role in the creation and reproduction of gender and gender segregation.
- American Association of University Women. 1998. “Separated by Sex: A Critical Look at Single-Sex Education for Girls.” Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.ncgs.org/Pdfs/Resources/Separated-By-Sex-A-Critical-Look-at-Single-Sex-Education-for-Girls.pdf).
- Charles, Maria and David B. Grusky. 2004. Occupational Ghettos: The Worldwide Segregation of Women and Men. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Jacobs, Jerry. 1990. Revolving Doors: Sex Segregation and Women S Careers. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Reskin, Barbara and Patricia A. Roos. 1991. Job Queues, Gender Queues: Explaining Women’s Inroads into Male Occupations. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
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