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Military as a Ticket to the Mainstream

September 15, 1985|JANICE MALL

A Rand Corp. study of employment patterns among young men and women has found that girls typically decide by the age of 14 whether they want to be career women or homemakers and that the brightest young women tend to choose non-traditional occupations, probably to the long-term detriment of professions such as teaching and nursing that have long relied on a "captive labor pool" of intelligent women.

Another Rand finding that has been overlooked in many studies of sex and job issues is that the military has been a powerful example to civilian employers in ending sex segregation in employment.

The study analyzed a large national sample of the backgrounds, career choices and job performances of young people aged 14 to 21 that was compiled by the U.S. Labor Department over four years beginning in 1979. The Labor Department survey covered aspirations and work in both the armed services and civilian life, and the Rand analysis gave enormous credit to the military for opening new fields to women in the civilian sector as well.

For women, as it had done for blacks and other victims of discrimination, the military has been a ticket to the mainstream by offering attractive employment benefits and respected careers. It has not only opened many non-traditional occupations to women, but also has actively recruited and trained them for these jobs, according to a report on the study in the current issue of the Rand Research Report.

Jobs Traditionally Held by Men

In the civilian job market, only 3% of women work in jobs that have been traditionally held by men; in the military, one in three women has a "male" job. "How well women do in these jobs has a 'demonstration effect' on the civilian sector that will probably influence the rate at which civilian occupations are integrated by gender over the next decade. . . . The role of the military in women's economic, political and social advancement can hardly be overstated," the report said.

The report also commented on combat service, from which women are barred by law. Pointing out that the United States has an "implicit social contract" that relates full citizenship to readiness to defend the country, the report concluded that allowing women to participate in combat would increase the benefits of military service for women.

The youth of the subjects is one of the unusual features of the study, and enabled the researchers to look at how young people plan their futures. That girls are inclined toward their choices at a young age is important, particularly if the choice is a career. If a girl does not, for example, take advanced math in high school, her chances of entering a scientific or engineering field are "almost nil," the report said.

The researchers found that teen-age girls who expect to spend many years working thought about work in much the same way as boys do--aspiring to the skilled blue-collar, professional and managerial jobs that offer high pay and long-term security and are mostly held by men. In addition, girls who were reared in a home headed by a woman were predisposed toward jobs typically held by men, the report said.

"We know that more and more young women are growing up in homes with only their mothers present and that many of these same women are moving into formerly male-dominated fields," said sociologist Sue Berryman, who with Linda Waite did the research under a grant from the Ford Foundation. "We don't know why that should be or if the trend will continue, but it's clearly an important phenomenon to monitor."

Watching Mothers Struggle

Considering another finding of the analysis of the Labor Department figures--that fully 75% of the female work force is employed in sex-segregated occupations that pay less than jobs men hold--perhaps the trend among daughters of single mothers toward non-traditional jobs is simply a result of watching their mothers struggle to support a family.

The occupations in which three in four American women work are: librarian, teacher, nurse, dietitian, physical therapist, health technologist, clerk-secretary, salesclerk, assembler, dressmaker, laundry and dry-cleaning operator, cleaner, cook, waitress, health-service worker, child-care worker and hairdresser.

While one of the stereotypes that influences employers about women in male fields is that they will waste the employer's investment in training by leaving to marry or have children, the study found that job turnover rates were about the same for women and men and that women in non-traditional jobs are no more likely to quit than other women.

While the report is concerned with the persistent issue of the wage gap between men and women, it did not urge simple solutions. The problem is too complicated to erase the gap by pushing more women into higher-paying men's jobs, according to Berryman. "After all, one reason job segregation exists in the first place is that women who wanted to be homemakers and mothers chose jobs like nursing and school teaching that gave them the flexibility to move in and out of the work force as demands of the home dictated.

"There will have to be some profound readjustments in our society's values with respect to child rearing before we see truly major shifts of women into traditionally male occupations."

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