The paradox of the absence of women in managerial occupations

Presence-absence” in the history of humanity, as Simone de Beauvoir would define them , “slaves of the men’s sentence”, quoting Virginia Woolf , women have been discriminated against for centuries within the labor market and beyond: while men belonged to the prominent occupational professions, these were considered by nature devoted to caring for the home and children. Today women enjoy, at least formally and in the western part of the globe, the same rights as their male counterpart, they have free access to school and a career.


In fact, even in Italy women have now reached the absolute majority of graduates. According to FSOAT data referring to the 2016/17 academic year, these were 57% of all those who obtained a degree. Furthermore, it can be thought that the investment in human capital – i.e. in education and learning processes – of the latter is greater than that of men, since the former obtain higher graduation marks and obtain degrees in less time . The 2018 Graduate Profile Reportshows that among graduates in 2017, where the presence of women is significantly higher (59.2%), the share of women graduating in progress is 53.1% (this percentage is 48.2% for men) with an average graduation grade of 103.5 out of 110 (101.6 for men). According to 2001 data reported by Luisa Rosti in the essay Occupational segregation in Italy, female subjects graduate with an average grade of 105.2 at the faculties with a higher feminization rate – or the number of female students divided by the total number of enrollments – and with an average grade of 103.3 at the faculties in which there are more male and fewer female members. The faculties of the first type are those of the following sectors: teaching, linguistic, literary, psychological, biological, political-social, legal, chemical and pharmaceutical; on the other hand, the degrees with a high rate of masculinization are engineering, medical, agricultural, economic-statistical and scientific degrees. Male subjects who obtain qualifications in faculty in which the feminization rate is higher obtain an average grade of 102.6; finally, those who study in courses with a low feminization rate graduate, on average, with 101.2.


Paradoxically, however, the ranking reverses by looking at the percentages of those who are employed in managerial or entrepreneurial positions as early as three years after graduation. In fact, 49.4% of women and 59.2% of men carry out highly specialized work five years after the master’s degree. Furthermore, according to the 2019 Manageritalia Women Report , women in 2017 made up 17.1% of executives.


The situation is improving considerably as regards the younger component of employment; women managers are in fact 31.7% among the under 35s and 27.9% among the under 40s. Although it must be taken into account that the percentage of women out of the total number of managers has increased a lot in Italy – where early 2000, it was 5.8% – it is still a long way from a situation of complete parity. In light of the above data, women are mostly employed in low-paying and skilled occupations. How to explain this paradox ? It is perhaps linked to the female tendency to prefer certain occupations, in order to reconcile work life with family life , or to stereotypes who continue to discriminate against women in the labor market?


First of all, it is necessary to refer to one of the cardinal principles of the economy, according to which men and women make rational work choices. However, the latter lead to a vertical occupational segregation (management positions are held more by men than by women, for reasons related to both the supply and the demand side).


The explanations on the supply side emphasize female preferences, assuming that if women are more present in certain sectors – for example, primary education – this is attributed to their biological nature (women prefer working with children, given their biological possibility of becoming mothers) and with different socialization processes. Often, in fact, women are, in the collective mentality, portrayed in a traditional way, as wives and mothers. However, it is impossible to define the extent to which individual decisions are guided by one’s preferences and how much by the incentive structure.


According to Becker, theorist of human capital, biological differences and / or sex discrimination make domestic work more convenient for women, while for men they have a comparative advantage in carrying out managerial professions. This way everyone is able to specialize in what they do best. However, employment decisions would be different if there were a different incentive system.


Furthermore, according to other intellectuals, women’s decisions depend heavily on job offers that allow them to combine professional life with childcare. Research conducted by Connolly and Gregory in 2008 showed that when social welfare measures are scarce, mothers are unable to maintain high-paying jobs, being forced to seek a less-paying and less skilled profession, mainly part-time or that provide for the possibility of continuing to work after pregnancy.


Instead, according to the demand-side explanation of female occupational segregation, employers’ preferences must be taken into account . In a context of information asymmetrysuch as that of the labor market, in which those who apply for work do not know, at the time of hiring, all the characteristics of the candidates, companies take into consideration all possible factors. Sex will also be considered among these if it is thought that it may affect the candidate’s productivity. This practice, however, is unjust as the decision is at least partially subordinated to the external characteristics of the individual, and therefore contributes to reinforcing existing prejudices. In fact, as the Arrow model explains, if employers tend to assign women positions that are not at their height, they, out of frustration, will tend not to lavish all the skills they possess in the employment, with a paradoxical outcome.: confirm to superiors what they were already convinced of. Therefore, employers do not invest in women because they do not invest in the labor market; however, this practice is due to the lack of trust on the part of employers. We are faced with a vicious circle : segregation will continue as long as there is discrimination.


It must also be considered that women are less incentivized than men to participate in job selection rounds, as regards the top positions of the company. For example, if someone running a law firm needs a new employee, they will have to choose between candidates; the male component of the latter will be more incentivized to participate in the selection of its female counterpart. This is because, especially in states that do not provide assistance and support for families, women are still regarded as the pillar of family and domestic life. Therefore, female subjects interested in holding managerial roles have to bear higher costs than men; while men’s efforts are largely directed to the labor market. A selection is efficient, from an economic point of view, only if all those competing in it have to bear the same opportunity cost to take part (otherwise it is unfair) and if all participants are treated equally by the existing rules (otherwise it is unfair). If these parameters are not respected, Article 11 of the UN Convention onelimination of all forms of discrimination against women , which guarantees the right to the same job opportunities for men and women. Furthermore, an unfair and unfair labor market fails to ensure the optimal allocation of resources, as it does not allow to match the right person to the right job. This serious market inefficiency prevents talented and deserving women from accessing managerial positions: society as a whole pays a cost. The policies for equal opportunities are placed in the wake of the desire to eliminate this problem.


It is not within the scope of this article to express an opinion on policies that are as much debated as they are controversial, but we want to give an etiological overview of their function. They aim to ensure that competition for a job is not asymmetrical by promoting roundsof selection by the unfair rules (ie, the quota system) for a noble purpose: to compensate disadvantaged groups, which have to incur higher costs to enter the competition. In this sense, it is possible that the percentage of men and women employed in a given sector will become the same. Over time, through the demonstration by women of their skills, employers should stop discriminating against them and, as a result, the paradox of the lack of employment, in top positions, of half of all graduates, which invests , on average, more than the other in human capital.


Furthermore, in order to achieve gender equality in the world of work, policies are needed that support working parents; for example, a work environment compatible with family life, or economic measures that discourage employers from discriminating on the basis of sex, could contribute to breaking down the paradox.


In conclusion, it is not possible to establish whether women are naturally inclined to work in certain sectors, perhaps related to children and childhood. On the other hand, it is certain that there are stereotypes and prejudices that affect the possibility for women to access the top positions of the labor market. This practice mainly affects the career of those women who do not want motherhood and do not perceive it as a life goal, choosing to dedicate themselves totally to the workplace. The paradox that sees women obtaining excellent academic results without compensation in the world of work must, also for this reason and for the good of everyone, be they men or women, come to an end.


by Abdullah Sam
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