Article 3

2023-12-03 Stefano Basaglia

Gender in Professions: When Can We Talk About Balance?

From fashion to construction, through education: when can a sector be considered "balanced" in terms of gender? The question is more complex than current discourse suggests: if a discussion crystallizes around a few ill-defined concepts, there is a risk of yielding to the emotion of the moment and not seeing the interplay of the many dimensions that characterize this relationship. Navigating between psychology, sociology, and management, between people's desires, the structure of society, and power dynamics, is not a simple challenge, but it is a necessary step to try to truly reach clarity.


On Saturday, November 11, the newspaper La Repubblica published an article titled “Uomini che vestono le donne: la moda sotto accusa[1] (“Men Who Dress Women: Fashion On Trial”). The article discusses the lack of women in top positions at fashion companies, especially in the role of creative directors. We don't want to focus on the reasons that can explain this imbalance here. The fashion industry, among all sectors, is characterized by companies generally attentive to diversity issues, including for very instrumental reasons: image and marketing are at the core of their business, so showcasing their inclusivity can have positive effects on the reception of their communication campaigns and products. Moreover, many of the leading companies in the field of diversity and inclusion, as published annually by the Financial Times, are from the fashion industry.[2]

As we mentioned, though, we don't want to examine the fashion industry but use it to explore the concepts of balance and imbalance. When can a sector be considered "balanced" in terms of gender? When the percentage of men and women is at 50%, or when one of the genders is at 60% and the other at 40%? Perhaps 70% and 30%? Furthermore, to understand if any imbalance is due to discrimination by companies, we should start from the base of the organizational pyramid, i.e., from entry-level positions in a particular profession: how many male and female candidates apply to work in a specific company starting from the "bottom"? If the imbalance already exists at this stage (the entry level), the causes do not depend only on companies but also on how the identity of a profession has been constructed over time and how people's preferences are formed.

In the process of constructing a profession, companies also play a role: professions are practiced within companies, and a company's communication activities (such as the language used in job postings) shape the discourse around professions. However, companies are not the only ones in this process. If the imbalance already exists in the job offering phase, we need to go "back." We must understand how people's preferences are formed. Does the imbalance begin at the time of university choice? At the time of choosing a high school? Or even earlier? How much do society, families, and individual differences influence these preferences? Is it clear how desires and work needs are formed? Is it clear how these desires and needs intersect with personal ones, those that are "free" from work-related necessities? And if men and/or women do not desire to pursue a particular profession, should we "force" them? What should be the relationship between individual "freedom" and the "needs" of the economic system?

According to a survey conducted by the InDifesa Observatory of Terre Des Hommes' on a sample of 2,000 girls between the ages of 14 and 26, it emerges that, for 53.96% of the sample, gender stereotypes and prejudices limit their passions, ambitions, and choices in education and career.[3] In this regard, it is interesting to mention the case of so-called "STEM professions": for several years, there has been a campaign to increase the number of women enrolling in schools and universities that prepare for these professions. However, the most recent data still do not indicate a true reversal of the trend. According to Almalaurea data from 2022, men with STEM degrees make up 59.1%, while women with STEM degrees are 40.9%. Looking at these figures, though, we return to the initial question: is a 60-40 ratio an imbalance? Should we aim for a 50-50 ratio? Furthermore, in commenting on these data, the Almalaurea report states that women in STEM disciplines have better performance in terms of their graduation grades and regularity in their studies compared to men, but are penalized in the job market because they have a lower employment rate and lower salaries than men. In this commentary, however, there are some underlying issues that are not properly analyzed. The reference to the "job market" is generic: the employment rate depends, on one hand, on whether a person is actively seeking employment, and on the other hand, on whether they are hired if they do seek employment. This regards both businesses and individuals. In a context of a shortage of STEM professionals, can businesses really afford to discriminate against women and not hire them? Are businesses getting their employer branding policies wrong? Are their current policies deterring women? Do women with STEM degrees face a conflict between their current profile and the prospective family-related profile? Are they seeking less work and/or less demanding work in terms of hours/responsibilities – hence the lower salary – because they still bear the burden of caregiving? Could rhetoric about declining birthrates be a cause of this perception, shifting onto women a social "necessity" rooted in a "traditional" and "conservative" view of society? As you can see, there are many questions, and it is a complex issue to untangle.

Lastly, the issue of gender imbalance is raised only when the "disadvantaged" gender is represented by women and in reference to "prestigious" professions. Rarely is the issue of female-dominated sectors, such as primary and secondary education, where women make up 83% of the total teaching staff, addressed. The percentage rises to 99% in preschools and 96% in primary schools.[4] Therefore, education is dominated by women. What role does this hegemony play in the construction of gender stereotypes and prejudices? Do women, through their educational role (at home and in schools), act as a transmission belt between patriarchy and the passions, ambitions, and choices of female and male students? This is also a question that should be addressed. Moreover, if one wants to support a trend toward greater balance (whatever that balance may be) between genders in different sectors, it is necessary not only to "masculinize" female-dominated sectors but also to "feminize" prestigious and non-prestigious male-dominated sectors. For example, why don't we hear about extensive campaigns to increase the number of female bricklayers, given the labor shortage in the construction industry? Women working in construction are about 6% (rising to 18% when considering managerial positions).[5]

We started with the imbalances in the fashion industry and ended up with those in construction. The objective we hope to have achieved is to highlight the complexity of the issue of gender relations in society, education, the world of work, and in businesses. When a topic becomes popular and the discourse becomes focused on a few ill-defined concepts, there is a risk of succumbing to the emotions of the moment and not seeing the interplay of the many dimensions that characterize this relationship. It is not easy to navigate between psychology, sociology, and management; between people's desires, the structure of society, and power dynamics. It is not easy, but we must learn to do it.

iStock_metamorworks (2)