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Occupational Segregation

Stereotyped careers choices - whose responsibility?

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Jenny Bimrose
28 August 2009

Occupational segregation by gender is at the very heart of stereotyped careers choices and has shown a stubborn resistance to change in the UK labour market - despite women entering the labour market more highly qualified. Two types of segregation are discernible: horizontal, referring to the tendency of women to be employed in a restricted range of occupational areas different from those in which men are employed; and vertical, referring to women being employed at lower levels in organisations. Whereas anti-discrimination legislation may have slightly reduced horizontal segregation, because of the movement of men into occupational areas dominated by women, vertical segregation has increased in some countries.

 The construction industry, (traditionally male) and the health and social care industry (traditionally female) are examples of occupational sectors illustrating horizontal segregation. In the UK, for example, in both 1972 and 2005, at least nine out of ten employees in the construction industry were male (EOC, 2006). Similarly, in the UK in health and social work, the majority of employees were female both in 1972 and in 2005 (EOC, 2006).

Examples of vertical segregation in the UK include: 10 per cent of senior police offices, 9 per cent of senior judiciary and 13 per cent of university vice chancellors were women in 2005 and only 0.5 per cent of senior ranks in the armed forces were held by women (EOC, 2006, 2007).

The cost of occupational segregation (and therefore stereotyped choices) to economies is substantial. In the UK, it has been estimated that removing barriers to women working in occupations traditionally done by men and increasing further women’s participation in the labour market could be worth between £15 billion and £23 billion, or1.3 to 2.0 per cent GDP (Women & Workk Commission, 2006). Strenuous efforts have, therefore, been made to identify strategies to combat occupational segregation, with the policy imperative tending to stress the importance of recruiting women, rather than men, into non-traditional jobs.

Gender segregation in the labour market is now recognised as a major source of inequality and a number of causes have now been recognised. One such cause relates to the way in which organisations operate to construct and maintain barriers to women’s career progression, specifically, the negative impact of deep-rooted power differentials and their consequences. Additionally, it has been found that particular features of organisational cultures also militate against women’s career progression, for example, some recruitment and selection policies and procedures. Part-time work is also thought to sustain, if not increase, gender segregation (part-time women employees are more segregated than full-timers).

 So - where do we go from here?

 In trying to unpick the whole complicated scenario around stereotyped career choices, it's useful (I think!) to remind ourselves of definitions of some key terms in this area - which are interrelated, perhaps inseparable. For example, discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping. Try these:


‘Unfavourable treatment based on prejudice, especially regarding race, colour or sex.’

Concise Oxford Dictionary (1990), Eighth Edition


Banton (1994) argues that this type of definition combines the objective treatment (i.e. different) with a moral judgement (i.e. unfavourable). Because there are disagreements about what constitutes ‘unfavourable’ and the law relating to discrimination is constantly changing, Banton argues that these two components should be separated out. An example he uses to illustrate this point relates to religion. In most religions of the world, positions of leadership are held by men. Most adherents of these religions do not think of this as ‘discrimination’ against women because discrimination is thought of negatively. Yet minorities within many of these religions assert that there are no good religious reasons for such practices and that they are, indeed, discriminatory.

He suggests an alternative definition for discrimination: ‘The differential treatment of persons supposed to belong to a particular class of persons’, and suggests that the second stage (the moral judgement) would be to consider whether this difference is justifiable or not.


‘A preconceived opinion (against or in favour); bias or partiality; harm or injury that results from some action or judgement.’

Concise Oxford Dictionary (1990), Eighth Edition


Brown (1995) cites other definitions of prejudice:

‘the prior negative judgement of the members of a race or religion or the occupants of any other significant social role, held in disregard of the facts that contradict it’

‘an unjustified negative attitude toward an individual based solely on that individual's membership in a group’.

 Such definitions are useful since they capture two important aspects of prejudice. First, that there is a social orientation either towards whole groups of people or towards individuals because of their membership a particular group. Second, that these definitions stress the negative flavour of group prejudice.

Brown, however, argues that there are also problems with these types of definitions (e.g. suggesting an attitude or belief is faulty' in some way implies that we have some way of establishingcorrectness') and offers what he considers to be a less restrictive definition:

‘the holding of derogatory social attitudes or cognitive beliefs, the expression of negative affect, or the display of hostile or discriminatory behaviour towards members of a group on account of their membership of that group’. (p8)



A phenomenon at the heart of prejudice is ‘stereotyping’.

‘A person or thing that conforms to an unjustifiably fixed, standardized mental picture’.

Concise Oxford Dictionary (1990), Eighth Edition


Brown (1995) argues that to stereotype someone is to attribute to that person some characteristics which are seen to be shared by all or most of his or her follow group members. He discusses research evidence which provide us with insights to the origins of stereotypes, the way in which they operate and how they can be changed.

His conclusions include:

stereotypes may be used more if people are emotionally preoccupied with other concerns - thus operating as a short cut to understanding the world;

stereotypes can have self-fulling properties, creating the very attributes that are imagined to exist;

stereotypes are not used in a undiscriminating or unthinking way - rather they serve as tentative hypotheses for which we then seek out further information.


Banton, M. (1990) Racial Theories, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


Brown, R. (1995) Prejudice: its social psychology, Oxford: Blackwell.


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