Gender Disparities—Part 1

This is the post number 4 in a series of posts on sex and gender. The purpose of this post is to begin to answer the question, "Why do we find occupational differences among men and women?" and the related question, "Why for most of history have women earned lower incomes than men?"

A recent conversation with a coworker sparked my interest in writing about gender. I have been developing a series of icons for a medical software company. The set includes people icons such as doctors and nurses. Although I had made both male and female versions of the icons, I presented a condensed list to a few coworkers via email that showed a male doctor and a female nurse. One coworker's reaction was, "Male doctor and female nurse‽ Umm, NO, *Please Rethink*."

She was clearly upset that the male got the occupation that is typically associated with men and that the female got the occupation that is typically associated with women. She thought it was inappropriate to associate gender and jobs when the male is given the higher-paying job. Why was she so upset? She and many like her believe that such associations and stereotypes cause the disparities between men and women.  They assume that the mere existence of disparities implies discrimination. They often claim that whenever we see a lessening of disparities over time, it has been due to a lessening of discrimination under the pressures of government, the feminist movement, or a general increase in enlightenment.  I will call this theory (X). 

What are some scientific and reason-based tests to see which theory is more accurate? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. A correlation between gender disparities and discrimination would suggest that theory (X) is valid. If there is low correlation, then theory (X) is invalidated.
  2. If men and women are born differently, we can see if their differences give one sex an advantage over another in a given occupation that has large disparities between men and women. If the differences are irrelevant to the requirements of a given occupation, then theory (X) is validated. If the differences are relevant, then theory (X) is invalidated.
  3. If men and women naturally have similar occupational preferences because of their innate differences, then theory (X) is validated. If men and women naturally have different preferences,then theory (X) is invalidated.
  4. If skills and preferences were held constant and disparities still existed, then theory (X) would be validated. If those factors were held constant and the disparities disappeared, then theory (X) is invalidated.

I want to clarify that many people who believe in theory (X) probably don't rule out the possibility that some biological differences exist. They just think those differences don't explain much when compared to causes like discrimination. Theory (X) assumes that the mere existence of disparities implies discrimination.

I will continue with more posts that provide scientific evidence for or against each respective theory.