A study of gender disparity in the workplace since 1991 disputes the brawn vs. brain concept in which men continue to dominate physical tasks, while women are increasing their presence in intellectual tasks. Gender gaps persist in the workplace, especially in male-dominated jobs.
Drawing from a unique database of information spanning 25 years and taking a unique approach to defining work, a team of European researchers offer a mix of expected and unexpected insights into the progress of women in the workplace.
The study, sponsored by the European Commission’s Joint Research Study, based its findings on an analysis of France’s Enquête Complémentaire Emploi: Conditions de travail—the oldest survey measuring work attributes and working conditions in Europe. The researchers used the surveys of 1991, 2005 and 2016, pulling out responses to questions that matched the categories of their task approach to workplace activity.
The task approach focuses on the types or categories of tasks that workers perform. Originally, the task approached looked only at the content of work, for example, whether the job required physical tasks, intellectual tasks (e.g., solving problems), or social tasks (e.g., dealing with customers). The researchers expanded the tradition task approach to review, in addition, the methods of work—thus covering the issues of teamwork, repetition and autonomy.
The researchers also factored in gender concentration—that is, whether certain jobs were dominated by men or women, or were “mixed” jobs in which the proportion of men to women was about equal.
The results of the study reveals that, in general terms, gender gaps continue to persist.
Related to the content of work, the study showed while men (as expected) continue to dominate physical tasks, they also perform a majority of intellectual tasks, such as conceptualization (the possibility to learn new things in the execution of work). Gender concentration makes a slight difference: women perform more conceptualization tasks in female-dominated jobs than in mixed and male-dominated jobs.
In the social task category of “serving/attending,” which refers to tasks in which workers are responding to demands from the public, women are not more likely than men to be undertaking serving/attending tasks. However, gender concentration again makes a difference: in mixed or male dominated jobs, these tasks fall to more women than men.
The social task category of “managing/coordinating,” which refers to tasks in which workers coordinate or supervise their colleagues, yields some nuanced results.
In the 25 years covered by the study, the percentage of women engaged in managing and coordinating activities is almost unchanged, with men continuing to dominate these tasks even in jobs in which women make up the majority of the workforce. The only sign of progress: women are increasing their share of managing/coordinating tasks in male-dominated and mixed jobs.
Shifting to the methods of work, the researchers found that women worked in less cooperative jobs (in which teamwork plays a factor) than men—especially in mixed and female-dominated jobs.
The study also showed that throughout the period of the study, women have been given the more repetitive tasks, although this gender bias shows some signs of improvement: in 2016, the difference between women and men performing repetitive tasks was significant mostly in male dominated jobs, and to a lesser extent in mixed jobs.
In terms of autonomy, the researchers looked at three factors: latitude (e.g., freedom in prioritizing one’s work and selecting methods to accomplish the tasks); internal control (e.g., the control exercised by bosses and supervisors); and external control (e.g., direct control exercised by clients and customers).
The data revealed that both men and women have the same level of freedom from internal and external control. However, women tend to have less latitude than men, although in 2016, this was especially true for men-dominated jobs (while in 1991 and 2005, gender bias in latitude existed regardless of gender concentration).
These results lead to some signs of progress in terms of autonomy for women. Combining the latitude, internal control and external control results shows a net negative effect for women in 1991 and 2005 in all gender concentration jobs. In 2016, however, women have less autonomy than men only in jobs that are dominated by men. However (and unfortunately), this decrease in autonomy is due specifically to a decrease in internal control: in other words, the greater the share of men in a job, the more controlling the internal supervision of women.
This study is a wake-up call to leaders who may see some successful women in their organizations without recognizing that a deep-dive into the tasks performed by men and women reveal that the gender gap in the workplace has changed little in 25 years.
Leaders and managers can use the categories of job tasks described in this study to examine their own workplaces. For example, are men given more latitude than women in how they can accomplish their tasks? Are women given the same opportunities for promotion to management and coordinating positions? Are women more isolated than men, who are more likely to be part of teams? Are women more controlled by their supervisors than men?
This study offers a template for a granular assessment of gender equality in any firm or business of any size.
Mind the task: Evidence on persistent gender gaps at the workplace. Marta Fana, Davide Villani & Martina Bisello. JRC Working Papers Series on Labour, Education and Technology, No. 2021/03. (March 2021).
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