WASHINGTON, DC—A new briefing paper from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research charts occupational segregation since the early 1970s. Women continue to enter some high paying male-dominated professions, for example, rising from 4.0 percent to 32.2 percent of lawyers between 1972 and 2009, yet overall progress has stalled since 1996, according to one common measure, the Index of Dissimilarity.

Slowing progress, women continue to dominate professions traditionally done by women, which typically pay less, accounting for over 95 percent of all kindergarten teachers, librarians, dental assistants and registered nurses in 2009.

A few occupations have witnessed a sharp reversal in desegregation, with women’s share falling from over one-third to less than 21 percent of computer programmers since the late 1980s, and women’s share of civil engineering declining from 13 percent in 2005 to just over 7 percent in 2009. Most troubling, young women experience more segregation today than they did a decade ago; since 2002, their Index has worsened by 6 percent, erasing nearly one-fifth of the improvement since 1968.

IWPR’s Briefing Paper “Separate and Not Equal? Gender Segregation in the Labor Market and the Gender Wage Gap” analyzes data from the Current Population Survey on women’s share of occupations from 1972 to 2009. Based on 2009 earnings data, it examines the relationship between median earnings and the gender composition of occupations, differentiating between occupations that are predominantly male, have a relatively even gender balance, and are predominantly female — for low-skilled, medium-skilled and high-skilled fields.

“It is very likely that the stalled progress in integrating the labor market is contributing to the failure of the wage gap to close,” said Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Working in traditional female occupations can come at a steep price. Women are now proportionately more likely than men to have some years of post-secondary education. Yet, whether an occupation requires college level education or medium-level skills or is low-skilled, typically occupations that are predominantly held by women have lower median earnings than occupations with a more even gender balance or occupations predominantly held by men.

There are important exceptions, particularly among medium-skilled occupations: dental hygienists, an occupation almost exclusively held by women, have higher weekly median earnings ($956) than occupations almost exclusively held by men such as electricians ($856) or carpenters ($665). Yet, while over 80 percent of dental hygienists have at least an associate degree, only one in five electricians, and even fewer carpenters, have similar levels of education. To achieve similar earnings, women have to acquire more formal education than do men.

“All workers are likely to do better if they have at least some post-secondary school qualifications. Yet while it is still possible without college to earn a decent wage in some male-dominated occupations, the same is not true in female-dominated occupations,” said Ariane Hegewisch, a study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “Almost as important as getting a qualification, however, is the field in which you qualify. A speech language pathologist–an occupation that is predominantly female–on average makes $1,153 per week, compared with a pharmacist–an occupation nearly half female–who receives median earnings of $1,841, a difference of close to $700 for a week of full-time work.”

The difference in median earnings is not as big in absolute dollar terms for workers in low-skilled occupations. Yet working in a female-dominated, low-skilled occupation (the Bureau of Labor Statistics

identifies nursing and psychiatric aides, maids and housekeepers and cleaners, and personal and home care aides as the largest occupations in this group) is much more likely to result in earnings close to the poverty threshold than working in low-skilled male dominated occupations (such as truck drivers, laborers and ground maintenance workers). Median weekly earnings in low-skilled, male-dominated occupations were $553 in 2009, compared with $408 in female-dominated occupations.

“Policy makers need to pay attention to the stalled progress in gender desegregation,” said Robert Drago, research director for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “Occupational segregation carries costs for the economy and employers by exacerbating skill shortages and causing reduced productivity. It also costs working families. Particularly in low-skilled jobs, working in an occupation predominantly held by women instead of one held by men, may be the difference between earning a poverty wage and earning a family supporting wage.”

IWPR’s research on occupational segregation and earnings is supported by the Ford Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) conducts rigorous research and disseminates its findings to address the needs of women and their families, promote public dialogue, and strengthen communities and societies. The Institute works with policymakers, scholars, and public interest groups to design, execute, and disseminate research that illuminates economic and social policy issues affecting women and their families, and to build a network of individuals and organizations that conduct and use women-oriented policy research. IWPR’s work is supported by foundation grants, government grants and contracts, donations from individuals, and contributions from organizations and corporations. IWPR is a 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt organization that also works in affiliation with the women’s studies and public policy programs at The George Washington University.