In an August 10 article, Scott reports on a recent study by Donna Bobbitt-Zeher, a sociologist at Ohio State University, that suggests that, although the wage gap between men and women continues to shrink, the portion of that gap attributable to selection of major is increasing. As women enter business, math and the “hard” sciences in greater numbers, they begin to earn salaries that are on a par with those of male colleagues—but women continue to constitute the majority of professionals in fields such as education, the social sciences, arts and humanities, in which salaries remain low.
One obvious response to this situation is to find ways to integrate more women into the higher-paying “men’s” professions, starting with encouraging girls’ abilities in elementary school. These efforts are important and have a clear payoff. I don’t think they are sufficient, though, for two reasons:
1. Historically, fields that are dominated by men are more lucrative and prestigious. When women begin to saturate these fields, they lose status and salaries drop. The professions of secretary and “typewriter” were well paid and respected when only men were considered qualified to perform these highly sophisticated and technical tasks. In China and the former USSR countries, where most medical doctors are women, medicine is not considered a high-status profession. So simply bringing more women into a profession is not a long-term solution.
2. It goes without saying (or should) that math, the hard sciences, and business are important professions. We need the best minds possible to help figure out how the universe works and, as has been made painfully clear, how we can function in it productively and safely. But the professions traditionally considered “softer” are critical as well, regardless of who performs them. We need artists and social scientists to illuminate the meaning of hard facts, and we need educators and caregivers to nurture and transmit important knowledge to the next generations, and to ensure that we function as a caring and ethical society. They are not frills; I believe they are considered less important because for so many years women have performed them for free or at a huge discount. If the “best and brightest” were to be funneled off into the “harder” professions (unlikely, I know, because even in a level playing field, our gifts are diverse, but just imagine this for a minute) and there were no talented, dedicated people to teach our children, care for the most vulnerable populations, or help us explore what the meaning of our lives should be, what would society look like? Is this a trend we want to support?
As usual, there are more questions than answers here, but I think the issues are worth looking at.