When social scientists write of a “gender gap,” they mean a systematic difference or disparity between women and men. Frequently discussed gender gaps are those in the labor market and paid employment as well as in family work and relationships. The gender gaps in these areas are not constant but instead vary across time and place; moreover, within a given place or time, the gaps often differ by group membership (e.g., one’s race or social class). Because of such variation, explanations of gender gaps tend to focus on social factors rather than biological or other natural causes.
The Labor Market and Families
Men are still more likely to be employed for pay than are women. The gender gap in U.S. labor force participation dropped over the past century, with increasing numbers of women but fewer men reporting they work outside of the home (although the proportion of women entering the labor force peaked in the year 2000). Today, approximately 60 percent of women and 75 percent of men are in the civilian labor force. The numbers and proportions have increased most dramatically for married, white women with children.
The hours women spend on paid work have also steadily risen, but the gender gap in hours worked for pay remains. In the United States, employed men spend an average of 43 hours a week on the job. Employed women work an average of 36 hours per week for pay.
Often receiving even more attention is the gender gap in income and earnings. Over that same time period as the gap in employment declined, the gender gap in income narrowed. Women today, however, still make approximately 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. Moreover, in about three quarters of dual-earner couples, the husband still earns more than his wife; although the numbers are growing, in only about one third of couples in which both spouses work fulltime does the wife earn more than the husband. This gender gap varies by race. For example, black wives provide almost $4 out of every $10 of household income, compared with about $3 out of $10 for both white and Latina working wives.
While the gender gap “favors” men in paid work, housework remains women’s work more than men’s: Wives still cook, clean, shop, and manage domestic routines more than their husbands. Although even single women do more housework than single men, the gap grows when they marry—men start doing even less, and women begin to do even more.
The gender gap in caring for children also remains strong. Over the past few decades, residential fathers (i.e., fathers who live with their children) have begun to spend more time caring for their kids. Nonetheless, just as women in two-parent households continue to do most of the housework, such mothers continue to do most of the parenting. The gap intensifies when single parents are taken into account: Across race, mothers head the vast majority of single-parent families. Even though the number of single fathers is increasing at an even faster rate than is the number of single mothers, there are still five times as many single mothers as single fathers.
A gender gap also exists in caregiving to relatives. Far more than men, women call, write, invite, and take care of kin—whether elderly mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts or uncles. Matching a gender gap in the amount of time spent giving care is a difference in the kinds of care given. Although women do many and varied caregiving tasks for a significantly larger number of relatives than do men, there is not a single such task that men do more than women for a significantly larger number of people.
Gender Gaps: Explanations
What accounts for these gender gaps? A variety of explanations—emanating from different academic disciplines—address them. The so-called essentialist theories argue that gender gaps in paid work, as well as in family life, are bound up with the biological makeup of women and men and are, by consequence, if not exactly invariant, at least deep and tenacious. Often rooting gender differences in early childhood socialization, psychological theories allow far more room for variation among women and among men than do essentialist biological arguments. Much psychological research, however, explains uniformity among women and among men on grounds of invariance in gender-specific childrearing practices within a given society. Sociologists widely criticize such arguments and theories for ignoring the variation among women and among men.
Attending to such variation, sociological theories of gender gaps tend to emphasize two sets of explanations: structural forces and cultural influences operating in adult life. Most common are the arguments focusing on structural forces: that array of material and objective constraints and opportunities external to individuals. For example, according to this argument, growing educational opportunities available to women help account for the reduction in the gender gap in both employment and wages. Whereas in 1960, male college graduates outnumbered female graduates by five to three, by the year 2005, over half of those attending college were women. Because the gender gap in years of schooling declined, the wage gap between women and men diminished over those same years. Structural explanations also suggest both that the growing similarities between women’s and men’s paid work explain some of the reallocation of unpaid work and that remaining differences in unpaid work result in the remaining dissimilarities in paid work. Because women and men still spend different amounts of time on their jobs and have different types of jobs, men’s jobs more likely pull or push them away from family responsibilities than do women’s jobs. The amount and proportion of household income that women earn, the time they spend on the job, and their job prestige are negatively associated with the time they spend on housework.
Some suggest the gender gap in caring for kin also can be traced to employment. For example, compared with employed women, the “traditional woman” who does not work for pay is especially likely to provide care for her relatives. Further, the types of tasks for kin that a housewife does are different from those an employed woman does: Employed women give relatives more money and gifts, whereas housewives do more time-consuming, hands-on chores, like taking care of relatives’ children. In this sense, employed women are beginning to look a little like employed men, as the structural model would predict. At the same time, a large portion of this gender gap relates to differences in men’s and women’s job conditions, especially their wages. When men make the same amount of money as women, for example, men’s care-giving to kin begins to resemble women’s. This also reaffirms a structural explanation for the gender gap.
Others, however, emphasize that even when women work for pay, the gender gap remains. The “traditional” man—who holds a paying job—continues to do significantly less housework, child care, and kin work than his employed female counterpart. The second set of explanations trace these remaining gender gaps in paid employment and unpaid family labor to the cultural factors that operate in adult life— especially three sets of cultural beliefs: (1) gender ideologies (especially those attitudes concerning what men’s and women’s roles and power should be in paid and unpaid labor and nurturance), (2) beliefs concerning the importance of employment, and (3) beliefs concerning the importance of family obligations. These types of explanations suggest that women still do significantly more housework, child care, and kin work than men, even if their employment conditions are similar, because women and men have different views about gender, employment, and family obligations.
Any discussion of culture and structure, however, must emphasize that womanhood and manhood are not monolithic. For example, the difference in housework between black men and black women is smaller than the gap between white women and white men. Depending on their race/ethnicity, men and women are held accountable to different standards concerning gender, family, and employment just as they encounter different privileges and opportunities.
Overall, the gender gap in family and paid work has narrowed but still exists. A gender gap also remains in other realms of personal and social life—in physical and mental health (women get depressed more often than men while men develop what are called antisocial personalities and express anger more often than women), in crime (men are still much more likely to commit a variety of crimes, but women are catching up), and in politics (women are more likely than men to vote Democratic). Social forces can explain these, too. A gender gap does not necessarily mean attachment of a lower value to either women or men. Some of these gaps are simply markers of differences. Others are, however, indicators and enactments of inequality associated with different rewards and costs.
- Bianchi, Suzanne, John Robinson, and Melissa Milkie. 2006. Changing Rhythms of American Family Life. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
- Goldin, Claudia. 1990. Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Padavic, Irene and Barbara Reskin. 2002. Women and Men at Work. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.
- Rosenfield, Sarah, Jean Vertefuille, and Donna D. McAlpine. 2000. “Gender Stratification and Mental Health: An Exploration of Dimensions of the Self.” Social Psychology Quarterly 63:208-23.
- Sarkisian, Natalia and Naomi Gerstel. 2004. “Explaining the Gender Gap in Help to Parents: The Importance of Employment.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 66:431-45.
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