Study examines gender differences in working and living conditions

In November 2000, a Swedish interdisciplinary research project on "modern working and living conditions for women and men" presented its final report. Using the data from earlier research, the researchers have analysed the study's results from a gender perspective. Among the findings are that women's qualifications and work tasks are less likely than men's to be reflected to their advantage in the occupational position and pay.

An interdisciplinary research project on modern working and living conditions for women and men (Moderna arbets- och livsvillkor för kvinnor och män, MOA), aimed at developing policies and methods better adjusted to modern working and living conditions, has been carried out recently in cooperation between some 20 researchers from two regional occupational medicine institutions in Sweden and researchers from the National Institute for Working Life (Arbetslivsinstitutet, ALI), under the direction of Annika Härenstam, a psychologist. The MOA study has produced a series of reports, with the fourth and final one, presented in November 2000, looking at methods and strategies and summarising the project from a gender perspective ("Hur kan könsskillnader i arbets- och livsvillkor förstås?", Arbete och hälsa nr 2000:15, Arbetslivsinstitutet).

The project has examined certain working and living conditions for men and women in different occupational categories in both "typical" workplaces and those where new forms of organisation and production have been adopted. The study has examined questions such as: what different organisational, psycho-social, ergonomic and industrial hygiene conditions apply to men and women? and how do employees' private lives, level of education and position in working life influence these conditions? In the central study, 80 workplaces in five counties with about 8,000 employees were surveyed, while a sample of 102 women and 101 men was especially chosen for a detailed gender analysis.

The data were gathered in 1995, 1996 and 1997. An organisational description was drawn up at each workplace (through interviews with employers or employers' representatives) and open personal interviews were held with the sampled employees, who filled in a public health questionnaire. The same employees were later researched for a whole day at their respective workplaces, involving further questionnaires, interviews and a physical test. Fieldwork followed, with a number of quantitative and qualitative methods used over several days for each employee surveyed. For example psycho-social working conditions were examined and one-day measurements of ergonomic and physical/chemical exposures were conducted. The interaction between several different types of exposure at work and between work, phases of life and family situations were also investigated.

Three reports

The survey results were published in three reports during 1999. In line with the project's aim, each dealt with different methods of studying modern working and living conditions ("Rapporter från Yrkesmedicinska enheten", 1999:8, 1999:9 and 1999:12, Stockholm, 1999). One of the aims of the fourth and final report is, as mentioned above, to sum up the results and conclusions of the MOA project from a gender perspective. The report, written by Annika Härenstam and Hanna Westberg, both researchers at ALI, starts by examining methodological and strategic issues relevant for studies of gender and work, and concludes with a discussion of how differences and similarities in gender may be studied and understood. The researchers also propose strategies and issues for further research.

Research strategies

The strategies used and discussed in the final MOA report are:

  1. design of the selection of the sample - particularly gender-matched sampling (see above);
  2. methodological testing - using different methods for data collection and analyses, and investigating the reliability, validity, relevance and meaning of questionnaire items and classification of occupations as indicators for women and men;
  3. variable-oriented and person-oriented approaches in comparative gender analyses;
  4. combining quantitative and qualitative methods;
  5. a structural perspective, whereby the meaning of gender segregation is analysed, women's and men's working conditions in different sectors are investigated and compared, data are collected at different levels and later combined, and interaction between various levels is analysed;
  6. an overall perspective applied to women's and men's working and living conditions in order to study the consequences of total workload, the distribution of responsibility in the family, the interface between the worlds of work and private life, and the time spent in paid and unpaid activities; and
  7. an interdisciplinary perspective, looking at social, psychological, ergonomic and chemical/physical working conditions.

The empirical results from the MOA project's many different analyses are used as an illustration of how similarities and differences between the sexes may be studied. Data on individuals as well as relating to the wider organisational and labour market level have been combined and analysed in different constellations.

Examples and results

The study finds, for example, that job evaluation seems to operate to the disadvantage of women. Performing skilled work tasks does not result in increased pay for women to the same extent as it does for men. Less-skilled work tasks, however, have a clear link to low pay for female workers - a link which is not so strong where male workers are concerned. The researchers have compared employees' qualifications and work tasks with their occupational position and monthly pay, finding that the men surveyed received on average more pay than the women surveyed, in spite of similar work tasks. It was also harder to link the female workers to a defined occupational position as women more often than men have more varied work tasks and these cannot be covered by one single occupational classification. "Men may have a high position at work and a high salary without having a qualified education or meeting high mental demands. Women on the other hand may have both a qualified education and meet high mental demands without this resulting either in a high position or more pay," commented Annika Härenstam when the report was released in November 2000.

Another finding of the study is that it seems to be less advantageous for women than for men to work in a "lean" organisation. "Flatter" organisational power structures at the workplace seems to be primarily advantageous for male workers. The research also finds that men are in a more advantageous position both at male-dominated workplaces and and those where there is a balanced mix of the sexes. "To sum up, our results show that the difference between those who have good and improving jobs, and those who have stressful jobs, is increasing", stated Hanna Westberg, one of the researchers and editor of the final report. She added that current "changes in working life tend to favour male workers in technology-intensive companies, while women in sectors with a less favourable development have few chances to improve their working conditions."

Commentary

The final report from the MOA study focuses on the gender perspective, summarising those results and conclusions of the earlier analyses that are relevant for comparative gender studies of working and living conditions. At the end of the report, the researchers present some joint recommendations on how to strengthen the gender perspective in studies of working and living conditions and health. They state that it will be more and more important to study the interaction between class, ethnic origin and gender in more than one context - an assumption that is easy to agree with. The best way to study these issues is to use an overall perspective with interdisciplinary contributions, as the research area is full of complications, state the researchers. For instance, when conducting open interviews it should be noted that the significance of "gender" is very hard to pick up; those interviewed in the study very seldom chose to "actualise" the issue themselves. When they were asked if being a woman or a man meant something to them in this context, the answers were often either negative or evasive. During the subsequent analysis, however, it became more and more evident that "gender" was an essential category, though definitely hard to discover, define and describe. (Annika Berg, Arbetslivsinstitutet)

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