Breaking the Mold: Nontraditional Jobs for Women

by Emily Starbuck

March 22, 2018

When women first entered the workforce in greater numbers in the late 1800s, their opportunities were typically limited to low-paying factory work in cities, or social work and teaching. Over the years, the variety of occupations expanded to include so-called “pink collar” office jobs like typists, switchboard operators, and secretaries. During World War II, women also had the opportunity to take over previously male-dominated occupations while the country’s men were at war abroad. These opportunities were only temporary, however, and post-war, women returned to traditional fields or left the labor force altogether. Decades later, many occupations are still dominated by one gender.

Traditional and Nontraditional Occupations in Oregon

The Department of Labor Women’s Bureau categorizes occupations into traditional and nontraditional based on the percentage of women employed in those occupations. Traditional or female-dominated occupations are those in which women make up 75 percent or more of the total employed in that occupation. Nontraditional or male-dominated occupations are those in which women represent 25 percent or less of total employment. According to data from the American Community Survey (ACS), 47 percent of Oregon’s employment was in occupations dominated by one gender in 2016. Thirty-nine percent of employed women worked in a traditional occupation, while just 5 percent worked in a nontraditional occupation.
Many of the most gender-segregated occupations made up a relatively small portion of Oregon’s total employment, but both traditional and nontraditional jobs made it into the top 10 occupations by employment in 2016. For traditional occupations, secretaries and administrative assistants had the highest employment with more than 48,000 employed, 95 percent of which were women. Other popular traditional occupations in Oregon include teaching, nursing, childcare, and social work. On the nontraditional side, driver/sales workers and truck drivers had the highest employment at nearly 53,000 employed, just 9 percent of whom were women. Production and construction-related occupations and software development are other nontraditional occupations with high employment in Oregon.

Gaps in Wages and Hours Worked

While women made up 48 percent of Oregon’s total employment in 2016, only 55 percent of those women worked full-time (over 35 hours a week), compared with 70 percent of men. Women who work full-time are also less likely to work in a traditional occupation. When analyzing full-time workers only, the share of women employed in traditional occupations drops from 39 percent to 33 percent. When looking at part-time workers only, the share of women employed in traditional occupations grows to 51 percent. This large share of part-time workers may help explain why traditional occupations pay lower wages. Nontraditional occupations, on the other hand, range in wages from low-wage production occupations to high-wage computer and engineering occupations.
To account for the differences in hours worked, wage analysis between the genders is best performed on full-time workers only. On average across all occupational groups, ACS data shows that women working full-time made 79 percent of men’s full-time earnings. Only three occupational groups had women’s median earnings equivalent to or exceeding men’s earnings: healthcare support; installation, maintenance, and repair occupations; and protective service. The last two occupational groups are
nontraditional, indicating that despite their relative scarcity among women, the women in those occupational groups are making equivalent wages to their male counterparts. The only traditional occupational group where women earn equal to or more than men is healthcare support, but median wages for women are still less than $32,000 annually.

The Rural-Urban Divide

Women work differently in the various rural and urban regions across the state. Slightly fewer women in non-metropolitan areas work at all than in metro areas – 53 percent of women work in rural areas versus 59 percent of women in metro areas. Beyond that, in rural areas, women are more likely to work in a traditional occupation. More than 42 percent of women in rural areas work in a traditional occupation, compared with 39 percent of women in metro areas. This is likely due in part to the availability of employment in rural areas. Rural economies still rely more on trades and agriculture and less on the more gender-equitable office jobs found in urban areas.

The gender breakdown of employment by occupation also changes depending on how urban an area is. Food service occupations are more female-dominated in rural areas than in metro areas – 84 percent of food preparation workers and 83 percent of waiters in rural areas are women, compared with 67 percent in metro areas.

Race and Ethnicity Play a Role

Race and ethnicity can also influence the breakdown of traditional and nontraditional employment in Oregon. Women of color made up about 12 percent of Oregon’s population and 11 percent of Oregon’s employment in 2016. In general, women of color are more likely to work in nontraditional or non-gendered occupations than white women are. Four out of the top five occupations of employment for white women are traditional occupations, while only one out of the top five occupations of employment for women of color are traditional occupations. The top five occupations for women of color are also some of the lowest-paying occupations, while white women have a range of higher and lower paying occupations in their top five.

Many occupations stay gendered across races and ethnicities, with a few notable exceptions. For example, 83 percent of female electrical and electronics engineers are women of color. Similar nontraditional production occupations, such as semiconductor processors, also have a higher share of women of color. Employment in nontraditional agricultural occupations splits more evenly between men and women of color than between white men and women. Some traditional occupations also have less gender disparity with their employment of people of color. Dental assistants are 93 percent female overall, but are 73 percent female when only analyzing people of color.

Outlook for Women in Nontraditional Jobs

While most women no longer work in traditional jobs, we still have a ways to go before reaching gender parity across occupations. Curiously, an increase in gender equality in an occupation can lead to downward pressure on wages. A 2009 study by Asaf Levanon, Paula England, and Paul Allison analyzed Census data from 1950 to 2000 and found that as the share of women in an occupation increased, the average wages for that occupation decreased. Inversely, some occupations that were previously female-dominated that became male-dominated saw an increase in wages, such as computer programmers. The researchers theorized that this might be due to employers viewing occupations with high shares of women as lower value occupations and consequently setting lower wages for those jobs.

Regardless of the cause, it appears that working in a traditional occupation places a damper on wages for both women and men in that occupation. However, that could change in the near future. Many traditional occupations are in fields that are harder to automate, compared with the many production-related occupations on the nontraditional side that could be automated soon. As these nontraditional jobs start to decline, we may see a shift towards gender equality in employment as men previously working in male-dominated occupations seek employment in traditionally female spheres.


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