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What is Occupational Segregation?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 16, 2024
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Occupational segregation is the uneven distribution of diverse individuals in any given occupation. In other words, occupational segregation is the tendency for an occupation or a certain part of an occupation to be dominated by individuals of a particular race, gender, or other personal characteristic. Although racial and sexual discrimination is illegal in the U.S. and many other nations, occupational segregation still exists, as numerous reports and studies have verified. Terms such as the glass ceiling and the gender gap refer to the realities of occupational segregation.

For centuries, segregation in the workplace was legal and was even the expected policy in most occupations. For much of history, minorities were only given menial, low-paying jobs, when they were allowed to work at all; better jobs were reserved for members of the privileged upper class. During the 20th century, civil rights activists demanded that the legal rights afforded this class be extended to people of all races and genders. This led to laws such as the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made sexual and racial discrimination illegal, at least as official policy. In practice, however, discrimination has continued into the present day.

Following the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act, corporations, private employers, and even governments continued the policy of occupational segregation by limiting advancement opportunities to those of a particular race or gender, usually white males. Women and minorities were passed over for promotions or relegated to the lowest paying or least prominent positions. While unofficial, these policies, often called the glass ceiling, could easily be detected by the prominence of white men in management positions. Starting in the 1970s, some individuals challenged these unofficial policies on the grounds that they violated anti-discrimination laws.

As a result, there has been progress in eliminating occupational segregation. Female and minority executives have risen to top positions in many corporations. Even in the 21st century, however, occupational segregation still exists. Racial minorities and women still dominate the lowest paying jobs in many nations. This has been termed the sticky floor, as these individuals are unable to rise above the lowest rungs of the corporate ladder. For them, the glass ceiling is irrelevant.

Pay disparity between men and women for the same type of work, also known as the gender gap, is another form of occupational segregation. Historically, women and some minorities were paid less than white males in comparable positions, and these policies persist in modern times. Ongoing legal and institutional changes are geared toward combating this type of segregation. Some studies have shown, however, that the real culprit is cultural bias. According to these studies, segregation in the workplace reflects the tendency of many people to view minorities with suspicion, disregard, or outright hostility, even in the 21st century.

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Discussion Comments

By fBoyle — On May 23, 2014

@SteamLouis-- I'm not an expert on this topic but I think it happens both ways. Some of it is intentionally implemented by administrators while others are happenstance.

For example, if most coal mine workers are male, I don't think that's occupational segregation. Some jobs are difficult to do and require physical strength. So women usually do not apply for them simply because it is not suitable. So I don't think that there is segregation in every situation.

I'm sure some discrimination still happens but I also think that in terms of equal opportunity, US is farther ahead than many other countries. All government agencies and most private organizations are equal opportunity employers and hire people of different races and gender.

By SteamLouis — On May 22, 2014

Is occupational segregation always done intentionally though? Couldn't it be that a certain race or gender prefers one type of job rather than another?

By ysmina — On May 22, 2014

Despite all of the laws that have been passed, occupational segregation still very much exists in the US. Majority of managerial positions are still occupied by men. And women are often paid less than men who hold the same positions. I agree that unfair compensation is another form of occupational segregation.

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