Photo: Trevor Coultart/flickr

Over the past 20 years more women have gone to university and more women have entered the paid workforce. So why does the job market still look pink and blue?

A recent study published by Statistics Canada finds that young women with university degrees today are most likely to become elementary school teachers or nurses.

Just like young women 20 years ago.

The increasing share of women attaining university degrees has clearly increased their share of some professional job markets — particularly in law and medicine. However, women’s shares of jobs in science and engineering have grown only slightly from their historically low levels.

The jobs men enter after graduation have also changed over the past 20 years. However, these changes appear to have more to do with the emergence of new fields of work within the traditionally male-dominated technology sector. Men have not shifted into traditionally female dominated sectors in any number. For example, 92 per cent of registered nurses (ages 25-34) are women today — compared to 95 per cent 20 years ago.

This suggests that social attitudes about what constitutes appropriate work for men and women have not kept pace with changing attitudes about women’s education. The increasing presence of women in law and medicine, and the lack of parallel shift by men into education and health care also suggests that social attitudes towards men’s work have been even less flexible than attitudes towards women’s work.

Of more immediate concern is the gap in pay that young men and women can expect to earn. There is a gap in median employment incomes both within job sectors and also between job sectors. Male elementary school teachers, for example, earn $10,000 more per year than do female elementary school teachers. Female computer programmers earn $5,000 more than female elementary school teachers.

Men and women without university degrees experience even greater segregation by industry. However, the top job for both men and women without degrees is in retail sales. Not only is the pay gap greater in retail sales — women earn 65 per cent as much as men — but with median earnings well below the Low Income Measure, it matters more. Women working in retail sales earned just over $12,000 per year in 2013 and men earned over $18,000 per year. When your income doesn’t cover your basic expenses, the loss of $6,000 can mean the difference between paying rent or not.

Clearly access to higher education has made a meaningful difference for women’s economic security. However, it hasn’t made enough difference. Being a man or working in a male industry still means earning more. Gender roles still have the power to define careers, for both men and women. Short-term pay equity policies are needed to close the income gap and longer-term social changes are needed to deliver on the promise that our children can be whatever they want to be when they grow up.

Kate McInturff  is a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the director of the Centre’s initiative on gender equality and public policy, Making Women Count. You can follow Kate on Twitter @katemcinturff.

Photo: Trevor Coultart/flickr