On the Natural Intelligence of Women in a World of Constrained Choice: How the Feminization of Clerical Work Contributed to Gender Pay Equality in Early Twentieth Century Canada

By Altman, Morris; Lamontagne, Louise | Journal of Economic Issues, December 2003 | Go to article overview

On the Natural Intelligence of Women in a World of Constrained Choice: How the Feminization of Clerical Work Contributed to Gender Pay Equality in Early Twentieth Century Canada


Altman, Morris, Lamontagne, Louise, Journal of Economic Issues


This article examines some of the more pertinent details of the feminization of clerical work in the context of early twentieth century Canada and the impact that this had upon gender pay inequality. More generally, we address the question of the conditions under which labor market segmentation, such as the feminization of clerical work, can be expected to adversely affect the relative pay of women. To this end new labor market and related estimates for Canada are developed. The Canadian economy experienced significant economic change during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Output and population grew at unprecedented rates while agriculture became less important, Canada's urban population surpassed its rural, and, as well, new forms of business organization were implemented in the private and public sectors alike (Altman 2001a). It was during these times of dramatic economic and social change that the structure of Canadian women's market employment was transformed in fundamentally important ways. During the 1900-1930 period clerical work became the occupation of choice for a growing percentage of female labor force participants and, in turn, clerical work became increasingly feminized.

A critical finding of this article is that the movement of women into clerical work in the early part of the twentieth century, and the subsequent "feminization" of the occupation, did not result in increasing the gender pay gap in Canada. Instead, it reduced this gap as women's pay in clerical work increased sharply relative to men's from 1900 to 1930. Since clerical work was consistently the highest-paying occupation for women apart from occupations employing a minuscule percentage of the female labor force, by moving into clerical work and thereby feminizing it, women contributed toward reducing the gender pay gap, even as the feminization of clerical work contributed toward increasing labor market segmentation or the differential employment of men and women across occupations. In other words, contrary to what leading scholars have argued, labor market segmentation need not contribute to a deterioration of the gender pay ratio against women. The example of the feminization of clerical work in Canada is a case in point. More and more women were simply finding employment in a well-paid occupation, albeit women were paid less than men here as they were in all major occupations.

In the traditional labor market segmentation models women are forced into low-wage occupations-women have no choice in the matter-thereby producing persistent gender pay gaps between women and men. (1) But in economies where women have acquired the legal and social capabilities to seek and choose employment opportunities, as was true of both Canada and the United States and most of Western Europe by the early twentieth century, we argue that women can be expected to seek employment where wages and other pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits are greatest. Whether or not this results in more or less labor market segmentation critically depends on the distribution of relative benefits between women and men across sectors. Moreover, we argue that the existence or absence of labor market segmentation does not necessarily speak to the existence or absence of labor market discrimination. Discrimination, where it exists, often lurks in the shadows of any particular manifestation of labor market segmentation.

Since women were paid less than men, a literal reading of our estimates might suggest that by employing more and more women, employers were simply hiring the relatively low-priced labor. In the process, therefore, clerical work was transformed from its relatively high-wage standing, for men and women combined in 1900, into an average-wage occupation by 1930, all the while remaining a high-wage occupation for women. The picture we seek to paint, however, is far more complex. The very nature of clerical work was transformed over the course of the 1900-1930 period. …

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