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Why do certain occupations matter?

In this article we explore the distribution of unpaid caring roles and roles of influence in society.
© University of Exeter

During this module we have explored the gendering of roles, whereby some women are found to be disproportionately under- and over- represented in certain roles, and we’ve just explored the extent to which women are represented in politics. One explanation for these differences is that men and women choose different roles. The thesis that follows the ‘choice argument’ is that if women elect to take certain roles over others then we shouldn’t seek equal representation in different occupations as this is imposing preferences on them and could be against their own wishes. In response to the ‘choice argument’ it is noted that ‘choices’ are influenced by our immediate environment, including upbringing, culture and norms – we have already come across this argument. This means that efforts to change perceptions about assumed roles and career paths should not be seen as an imposition, but an opening up of opportunity. Another response to role gendering, which we have also addressed, is to consider how the roles are valued, tackling the tendency for roles primarily undertaken by women to be valued less highly than those undertaken by men, and for role value to change based on who predominately occupies the role.

But occupations also matter because certain roles have influence and power and can shape policy and the lives of women. The reason so much attention is given to senior roles in organisations, such as the number of women in boardrooms and political roles, is that these are seen to be roles with influence that extend beyond the immediate benefits to the incumbent (senior roles also tend to attract the highest levels of pay) but also play a significant role in directing the lives of others through policy decision-making. We’ll look at politics and business in turn.


Black and White photo of a march, taken from behind. Banners say #MARCH4WOMEN Photo by Giacomo Ferroni on Unsplash

The arguments for having women in politics include:

  1. The composition of a parliament (or equivalent governing body) should represent the composition of the society and its interests it represents. Therefore, if women are approximately half of the population that should be reflected in the composition of the governing parliamentary membership in a democracy.
  2. Of course, acting as a member of parliament is only the first stage, as women also need to reach the higher levels of government – ministers and prime minister for example – to have equivalent powers to men. However, having a role in politics enables this to happen, and influence is possible at all levels of political involvement.
  3. Giving voice to women. It is argued that women are better placed to understand and represent and give thought to concerns primarily affecting women. That is not to say men do not, and have not, considered women in their decision-making, but that women may be better placed to do this, and are more likely to consider women. The consideration of policy impact on different genders is known as gender mainstreaming (see box below).
  4. Acting as a role model. Having women succeed in politics, particularly at ministerial and prime ministerial level, demonstrates that achieving these roles is possible. Furthermore, as female incumbents of these roles become more commonplace, it shifts us from the perception that women holding such roles are exceptions (we are currently more likely to add a gender prefix when a prime minister is female) to considering it the norm. This has an effect on assumptions, expectations and perceived opportunities for future generations.

These arguments also apply to international governmental organising bodies, such as the European Union.

Gender mainstreaming is the process of assessing and developing policy and legislation in light of its impact on different genders. It recognises that policy actions have different implications for different genders which need to be considered to reduce gender inequality resulting from policy and legislation.


Colour photograph showing three women, one facing the camera and two with backs to the camera in what appears to be a business meeting Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash
The arguments for having women in senior positions in business broadly parallel those applying to roles in politics. There are two underpinning arguments for the inclusion of women in senior positions. The ‘democratic case’ for inclusion as found in politics is typically understood as the ‘moral case’ in business – that is, it is only fair to have women in these positions as they are equally capable. The arguments around having political ‘voice’ to reflect that segment of the population are more usually understood as comprising the ‘business case’ in this context – that since women are about 50% of the world’s consumers it’s a good idea to have their involvement. We explore some of the arguments below.
  1. The moral argument for having women in senior positions is that they should be equally represented at these levels and given the same opportunities. Equality of opportunity may not be as straightforward as simply enabling both men and women to apply for positions because of the barriers facing women. See below for a discussion of ‘equity’ versus ‘equality’ which addresses this point. Underrepresentation of women at higher levels of organisations should be taken as a sign that such opportunities are not equally available.
  2. Women having access to positions of power and influence means they are better able to influence decision-making. This informs the products and services to be developed, but also means they can influence how this is achieved. It also places them in positions to influence the achievement of gender equality through organisational policy, mentoring, and demonstrating the value of having women in such roles.
  3. Women should have the same opportunities as men to achieve positions with high earning potential. Economic power – that is, having access to money – is not the only form of power, but it is an important one to ensure equality. Access to money leads to power and influence, and can shape markets. At a minimum, having access to their own income enables women to be independent. With a higher salary it means they can use their wealth to influence and support others as well as ensure their own financial security.
  4. The business case for having women in senior positions includes:
    • Their perspectives as customers and potential employees. Since they represent potentially half of the workforce and half of the customer base, having them informing company policy is vital to ensure an understanding of these needs is included in decision-making.
    • The talent pool. By excluding women from senior positions, or by not removing barriers that prevent them from being able to access these roles, a firm is denying itself access to a significant talent pool. The role model argument, as discussed above, also applies here.
  5. Similar arguments can be made for non-governmental organisations, some of which have similar powers of influence to that of governments.
Gender equality means having the same opportunities regardless of gender. Gender equity refers to the fairness of treatment according to the needs of the gender. This means that treatment may be different in order to achieve equality, since the needs of each gender may be different. Equality can be seen as the end goal and equity in treatment as the means to achieve this.

However we also need to take care not to undervalue the roles played by women (and men) in the home. We can make the argument not only on economic terms – attaching a financial value to the work and making it the equivalent of paid work – but also in terms of the developmental role played by primary carers, particularly in the upbringing of children. The ability to influence and shape thinking – and this includes attitudes, values, ambitions, and the confidence of children – can play a significant role in the lives of young people. This includes their attitudes towards gender, gender roles, expectations and so on, and thus can play a role in tackling gender inequality. This is a ‘soft’ form of power, a form of power that operates with subtlety to influence behaviour.

A colour photograph of a mother, wearing a yellow and orange shalwar kameez, lifting her child high above her head playfully Photo by GPK on Unsplash

Other references and resources

Hoobler, J. M., Masterson, C. R., Nkomo, S. M., & Michel, E. J. (2018). The Business Case for Women Leaders: Meta-Analysis, Research Critique, and Path Forward. Journal of Management. 2018; 44(6), 2473–2499. Available from: [Accessed 9th May 2019]

A summary review of UNESCO’s accomplishments since the Fourth World Conference on Women, Gender equality and gender equity.

© University of Exeter
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Understanding Gender Inequality

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