Claudia Goldin’s pollution theory of sex discrimination

Claudia Goldin argues that it is  difficult to rationalise sex segregation and wage discrimination on the basis of men’s taste for women in the same way as discrimination based on race or ethnicity. Goldin developed a pollution theory of discrimination in which new female hires may reduce the prestige of a previously all-male occupation.

When work took more brawn than brain, the distributions of skills and natural talents of men and women were further apart. Women were not as physically strong as men. This counted for more both before the Industrial Revolution and at the height of the Industrial Revolution when most factory work involved a considerable amount of brawn.

As machines substituted for strength, as brain replaced brawn and as educational attainment increased, the distributions of attributes, skills and natural talents narrowed by sex.

Because there is asymmetric information regarding the value of the characteristic of an individual woman, a new female hire may reduce the prestige of a previously all-male occupation.

Prestige is conferred by some portion of society and is based on the level of a productivity-related characteristic (e.g., strength, skill, education, ability) that originally defines the minimum needed to enter a particular occupation. People had to have a minimum amount of the socially prestigious strength or skill before they are hired.

Male fire fighters or police officers, to take two examples, may perceive their occupational status to depend on the sex composition of their police station or firehouse. These occupations are socially prestigious because of the strength and courage of police and fire-fighters. Men in an all-male occupation might be hostile to allowing a woman to enter their occupation even if the woman meets the qualifications for entry.

A reason for this hostility of the existing male members of the occupation is the rest of society may be slow to learn of the qualifications of these female newcomers. Their entry against this background of ignorance in the wider society  may downgrade the occupation as still carrying prestigious characteristics such as physical strength. As Goldin explains:

Because they feel that the entry of women into their occupations would pollute their prestige or status in that occupation. Very simply, some external group is the arbiter of prestige and status.

Let’s take an example of firemen, and let’s say we begin not that long ago when there were no women who were firemen—which is why they’re called firemen.

And to become a fireman you have to take a test, lifting a very heavy hose and running up many flights of stairs. And every night, the firemen get off from work and go to the local bar.

Everyone slaps them on the back and says what great brawny guys they are and what a great occupation they are in, and everybody knows that to be a fireman requires certain brawny traits and lots of courage.

But nobody knows when there’s a technological shock to this occupation. And in this case it might be that fire hoses become really light or the local fire department changes the test. There are information asymmetries. But they do note that for this “brawny” characteristic, the median woman is much lower.

So if we observe a woman entering the occupation and we don’t know how to judge women, we’re going to assume that her skills are those of the median woman. Or it may be that we can observe something having to do with her muscles and that may up it a little bit.

But chances are we’re going to assume that some technological shock has happened to this occupation. And so her entry into the occupation is going to pollute it.

Then when they go to the bar, people will say, “oh you’ve got a woman in the firehouse; now fire fighting has become women’s work.” That’s where the pollution comes in.

Union rules also played a role in preventing the entry of women into some occupations

Many occupations have changed sex over time e.g., librarians, bank tellers, teachers, telephone operators, and sales positions. New occupations  and industries are less like to be segregated on the basis of sex  because they have not developed a social image regarding the prestige of workers.

Occupational segregation came to an end because credentialisation, which spreads information about individual women’s productivities and shatters old stereotypes, can help expunge this pollution of the prestige of specific occupations and jobs both within the industry and in wider society .

The visibility successful women today and in the past may help shatter old stereotypes and increase knowledge about the true distribution of female attributes in this prestigious occupation.

Goldin found that  when typists were primarily men, it was claimed that typing required physical stamina so woman need not apply.

But later, when the occupational sex segregation reversed, when typing became a female occupation, it was said that typing required a woman’s dexterity, which men did not have! When I was at school, only women were taught to type.

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