Sociology Gender and Professions
Leslie Irvine, Jenny R. Vermilya
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0223


The term “professions” generally refers to occupations that require expertise obtainable only through specialized training and credentialed by advanced degrees or licenses. Examples include academia, medicine, law, engineering, the clergy, and accountancy. The professions generally provide greater social prestige relative to other occupations. Moreover, professionals determine the scope of their work, the requisite level of expertise, and the terms of inclusion. Much of the research on gender and professions highlights the structural barriers to entry and advancement by women. Because the professions developed from endeavors long considered “gentlemanly vocations,” they were historically dominated by men. Most universities prohibited women from matriculating until the mid-1800s, allowing few to obtain the advanced education required for the professions. By excluding women from highly rewarded roles, the professions have long produced and maintained gender inequalities, particularly the Wage Gap. Over recent decades, women have entered the professions in growing numbers. In some cases, such as veterinary medicine, women have even overtaken men numerically, resulting in the feminization of the field. Salaries in feminized professions, or sectors of a profession, are generally lower than are those in fields with fewer women. The explanations offered for this wage gap involve devaluation or queuing. The devaluation view argues that the sex composition of a profession affects the salary offered. Because of gender bias, employers devalue work done by women. Consequently, they lower the rewards in occupations numerically dominated by women. This is particularly the case for professions involving emotional labor and care work. In the queuing view, the salary levels of a profession affect its gender composition. Although both men and women prefer to work in higher paid professions, employers prefer to hire men for high-reward positions. This suggests a gendered labor queue consisting of men, leaving women clustered in professions offering lower pay. In research on other topics, different definitions of “gender” lead to varying perspectives on its implications for the professions. When understood as a set of attributes associated with biological sex, research emphasizes the sex-typing of skills and sex-based differences within professions. When understood as a relation that influences interactions and identities, research investigates how gender informs the daily functioning of the workplace in various ways, producing professional cultures that create formal or informal barriers and advantages.

General Overviews

Hearn 1982, Crompton 1987, Witz 1990, and Davies 1996 illustrate the importance of gender for theorizing the professions despite its absence in much of the literature.

  • Crompton, Rosemary. 1987. Gender, status and professionalism. Sociology 21.3:413–428.

    DOI: 10.1177/0038038587021003007

    Drawing on Max Weber’s concept of status, argues that gender is both an individual and structural position. Discusses how gender interacts with the credentialing process and exclusionary strategies to limit women’s access to professions. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Davies, Celia. 1996. The sociology of professions and the profession of gender. Sociology 30.4:661–678.

    DOI: 10.1177/0038038596030004003

    Taking a gender relations perspective rather than portraying gender as an attribute, Davies argues that the unacknowledged work of women makes the traditionally masculine detachment and impersonality of bureaucracies and professions possible. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Hearn, Jeff. 1982. Notes on patriarchy, professionalization and the semi-professions. Sociology 16.2:184–202.

    DOI: 10.1177/0038038582016002002

    Examines the role of the professions in developing and maintaining patriarchy. Discusses how the division of labor in the semi-professions has resulted in a female-dominated workforce and male-dominated management. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Witz, Anne. 1990. Patriarchy and professions: The gendered politics of occupational closure. Sociology 24:675–690.

    DOI: 10.1177/0038038590024004007

    Criticizes the assumption that “profession” is a generic concept rather than a gendered project existing within capitalist, patriarchal relations of dominance. Traces the gendered division of labor in medicine through exclusion, inclusion, demarcation, and closure. The establishment of nursing illustrates the strategies involved in female professional projects. Available online by subscription or purchase.

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