Pink Jobs vs. Blue Jobs: Why Are We Still Navigating a Color-Coded Workplace?

Nurse. Carpenter. Teacher. Doctor. Vice President. Secretary. Maid. Bus Driver. Dentist. Hygienist. President. Waiter. Can you identify which are Pink Jobs versus Blue Jobs?

A level playing field. Equality. Gender neutral. All terms that are bandied about on Capitol Hill on a daily basis—but somewhat far from the reality of what is present in the modern workplace. Now, this isn’t a post about the gender pay gap—there is plenty written on that already. Instead, I would like to discuss the issue of gender segregation in the workplace based upon occupation.

It might not be 1965, but this is an issue that is still present in 2015.

However, there is also a caveat here. I believe that the markers have been moved, so to speak, when it comes to realizing a divide between “pink jobs” and “blue jobs.” Let me provide an analogy to help bring understanding to this point.

Back when I was in middle school, electives scheduling during semesters was laid out in a specific way based on gender. For instance, the boys were required to take shop class, the girls were required to take sewing. When it came time for me to schedule my classes, I told my counselor that I already knew how to sew, that instead I wanted to take shop class with the boys.

Skeptically, I was told that I would first have to prove that I knew how to sew—a sort of “testing out” of the class, and then I would have to get parental permission. As my mother was principal of the local high school, I said she could easily come in after school. However, it wasn’t enough for my mother to vouch for me. I was told that my dad also had to come in and provide his consent. The message that was conveyed was: Mothers’ opinions don’t matter as fathers were the head of the house.

Once this bureaucracy was all navigated, I found success—and I was also the first girl in my middle school’s history to be enrolled in a shop class. Not that I am considering myself a pioneer, but it was an interesting development in my life at the time, and especially pertinent to this article as it was likely my first experience with gender segregation.

The Changing Landscape of Gender Segregation

Talking to women and men of younger generations, I find Millennials to be technologically-savvy, open-minded, inclusive, and eager. However, I also believe that there might be a tendency within this group of young people to be a bit nonplussed about gender equality issues within the workplace—as if there might be a belief that it doesn’t affect them. Considering it wasn’t until 1964 when Title VII of the Civil Rights Law was passed prohibiting employment discrimination based on gender (or race, color, religion, or national origin), women who are members of the Baby Boomer generation and even some Gen Xers may have spent the majority of their professional lives striving to find equal footing. In addition to the fact that it was at least 30 years after Title VII was passed that Millennials entered the workforce; they also started school by 1988 when Congress passed the amendment to Title IX, which ensured equal access to all educational programs and sports. Hence, this generation had co-ed sports teams as children (if gender-specific teams were unavailable)—and it was just as likely (and accepted) that a female had opportunities to pursue male-dominated organizations at school, as well as “traditional” female-focused activities. Society is no longer shocked by a girl filling a position on a boy’s ice hockey or football team and female enrollment in a shop class is not considered ground breaking territory. It appears there is a new normal—or have the goal posts for female accomplishment simply been moved to a different position?

Where my enrollment in a shop class during middle school was the first time I might have experienced something that could be considered gender discrimination, I have to think about the experience of females who are a generation after me. When writing this article, I talked to members of this particular group about their experience with gender segregation. One woman recounted the fact that when she was in middle school, it was part of the curriculum for both girls and boys to “do the rounds” so to speak in home economics classes as well as wood and metal shop. However, while this held true in middle school—the gender landscape changed in high school. For instance, it was the girls who were shuttled toward enrolling in the child development class that required them to carry around a mechanical baby complete with crying and dirty diaper-making capabilities—not the boys.

The goal posts had been moved—ever so slightly. This raises the question: “Where will members of the Millennial generation experience their first taste of gender segregation?” It seems it will be when they enter the workforce and look to advance their careers. While young men and women may enter the working world in like positions and with equal footing—the issue of gender segregation will probably rear its head when that young man or woman looks to get promoted into management. These two individuals might be headed in the same direction, but they are viewed differently, they are less likely to assert themselves, and may be shuttled into career paths that could be based on gender stereotypes. There is an essential presumption that women and men have fundamentally diverse tastes and proclivities and are accordingly best-suited for different types of occupations.

Do Women Choose Different Jobs From Men?

There is much discussion about the gender pay gap in today’s media.   Researchers have previously demonstrated that approximately half of the pay gap that is experienced between men and women is based on the tendency of women to work in different industries and occupations than their male counterparts. Therefore, I think it’s necessary to understand the concept of “pink vs. blue” jobs and their role in gender segregation. Moreover, we simply cannot blame male-dominated companies for this issue alone.

Two researchers, Matthew Bidwell and Roxana Barbulescu—management professors at Wharton and McGill University, respectively—conducted a study that uncovered the tendency of women to actually view the employment landscape differently even before starting the job application process. For instance, the authors of this study found that females were significantly less likely than men to apply for positions where work/life satisfaction ranked low. Conversely, women tended to apply for positions in industries that employed higher percentages of females. The study also showed that women’s perceptions played heavily into the type of job they felt that they were qualified for. One specific area to note was investment banking—women didn’t think they would get jobs in this field, so they didn’t apply, even if they held an MBA.

This study demonstrates that our society is still fraught with gender role perceptions. We cannot loftily call for employers to stop discriminating against women, when our culture and behavioral tendencies of men and women are also responsible. Instead, we must change these gender perceptions that we hold about ourselves in order to achieve greater access and so that women and men obtain better, higher-paying jobs and leadership positions based on their ability.

The Men Who Do “Women’s Work”

Keeping the idea that women might have some preconceived notions in their heads about what constitutes men’s vs. women’s work, it must be asked, does the same hold true for male members of the workforce?

Thirty or more years ago, you rarely saw men working as nurses, grade school teachers, and secretaries, or if they did, they certainly did not tell anyone that those were their occupations. Men were supposed to do the “manly work”…they were meant to be the boss of a company, serve as a partner in a law firm, or be a foreman on a construction site. They certainly didn’t do “pink jobs”—somehow, our sexist society socialized us to believe that such a position would be beneath that of a man’s ability.

Now, of course, there are still these stereotypes present in our society, but I believe they are decreasing. Did you know that the number of men to enter the profession of nursing has tripled over the course of the past three decades? Nationally, almost two-thirds more men are bank tellers—another traditionally female-dominated job position. Or even consider the recent advent of young Millennial and Gen X stay-at-home dads, who tout their offspring in a Snugli as they get a morning cup of Joe at Starbucks because their wife is the breadwinner in the family. And what about the emergence of the “Manny”? You know, like a nanny, but it’s a guy!

Gender roles have evolved for a number of reasons. While women have become more educated in order to expand their opportunities and pursue traditionally male-dominated roles, the number of open positions has also decreased and larger economic issues have been at play. Additionally, we are experiencing an erosion of some gender stereotypes because these young men, the Snugli dads and hipster mannies, have come of age during a time when gender expectations have been inverted. Alas, men and women can both say, “Anything you can do, I can do too.”

The bottom line is that men have to continue to become comfortable with filling the “pink” roles—and in turn, the ladies now need to find their confidence when setting their sights on the “blue” jobs.

Finding Confidence in a “Man’s Job”

Employers need to continue to shift their attitudes towards female leadership and hiring and promoting women to fill the leadership roles that have been traditionally held by men. Of course, this also has to start at the very top—with the boards. Gender segregation is more likely to be addressed when more women are appointed to organizations’ board of directors. Without this, the trickle-down effect will be just that—a small, debilitating, slow-to-change trickle.

Simultaneously, and to my female readers, it is up to you, as a woman, to educate yourself and others on how perceptions of jobs and lowered expectations of getting hired in certain positions could actually be sabotaging your career and keeping you from the higher-paying positions that you desire.

However, this not a women’s issue. It’s a people issue. It is up to all of us, to reflect on barriers, address perceptions when needed, in order to see ourselves as wholly capable of succeeding in any position. To accomplish this, we must define our career goals, determine what knowledge, education, and experience is necessary to obtain it, and then go after it—no matter if we want to be a plumber or the president.

If we continue to progress in the right direction, people won’t be puzzled by the aged riddle: A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!”

And they won’t know what are pink versus blue jobs.

Contact Julie Kantor at