Can You See The Separate Worlds of Work for Men and Women?

08/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For men and women to be equally distributed across occupations, about half (46%) of either group would have to change occupations. That's progress from 62% segregation in 1960. But it was already down to 48% in 1990, so we're pretty well stalled.

Lots of people work in environments that seem integrated, or at least they can point to men and women in the same room at work. And women have broken into a lot of formerly male-dominated fields, and a few men are even going the way of the "male nurse." But these are mostly in the white collar world of the professions and the college educated, which is partly because women now outnumber men about 114 to 100 among people with college degrees.

In fact, almost the entire decline in segregation since the 1960s took place among professionals, managers, and non-retail sales jobs. The blue-collar world is still a man's world. Women are just 2% of construction workers. Altogether, when Matt Huffman and I looked at the occupation, industry and local-area combinations of all workers (for example, waiters in restaurants in Detroit; janitors in manufacturing in Atlanta, etc.), we found that the average worker is in a group that is about 70% same-gender.

But these numbers don't show the true extent of separation in the worlds of work. When you look closer, it's more segregated than that. Check out the latest newsletter from the the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers, filled with nothing but posed pictures from meetings and receptions, including no less than 58 union leaders - every one male (though three are with their wives).

In fact, millions - tens of millions - of men and women spend their work days (or nights) almost exclusively side by side with their own gender. And here I'm not counting gender "diversity" across hierarchies - like the nice guy who supervises a group of women at a restaurant, the male accountant who hangs around the copy room with the secretaries for chit chat, or the female human resources manager at an auto dealership.

In some arenas, there's simply male dominance, and we're used to it. On the front page of my edition of the New York Times the other day there were 21 people named, 16 of whom where men - three politicians, six reporters, two athletes, and one each of: photographer, editor, architect, coach, actor. (There were two female reporters, an athlete and a photographer; one name I wasn't sure of.) On CNN you wouldn't see this gender imbalance (at least among the on-screen staff), but in the newspaper it's not as galling.

Seeing this, I walked out my door to do a few errands around my liberal enclave, and brought a piece of scratch paper. On the road you see people driving, and the driving professions are pretty male. So the truck drivers were 97% male (30/31), bus or shuttle drivers were 70% male (7/10), and those driving repair and maintenance trucks and vans of various kinds (cable, plumbing, UPS, etc.) were 100% male (13/13), as were the less numerous garbage and recycling crews (4/4), road construction guys (7/7), landscaping workers (9/9), movers (4/4) cops and prison transport drivers.

I would feel compelled to tell you I'm not making this up, but I'm sure you believe me. I did see three women in catering trucks, and even one driving an exterminator truck.

Maybe you have to go indoors to find the women at work. Hm, daycare workers 100% female (5/5); bagel store servers 100% female (3/3), but working with a male manager; receptionists 2/2 female.

The bastion of gender integration was the natural foods co-op - 3 men and 6 women without clear job identifiers (stocking, cooking, cashiering, etc.). Oh, and I saw a mix of male (1) and female (2) parking lot attendants. I ate my granola in the parking lot.