Patriarchy project 1a: job segregation and lower pay

Women reaping (image from C13 Germany)

I wanted to start the patriarchy project by looking at economic aspects and work, because that affected women at most social levels and even if they were lifelong single. In addition, because so much of premodern education involved being trained in skills for the employment (paid or unpaid) that you were later expected to have, relatively small children were already learning gendered job roles. I suspect that in all premodern periods young girls (6 or 7 maybe) were already starting to learn to spin, sew, cook and look after younger children and babies, whereas their brothers weren’t. (I need to read more about what skills young boys learned that girls didn’t, especially boys from the middle and lower classes). Some of these early-learned skills would later become sources of income. Job segregation (unequal distribution of women and men across different jobs) thus had roots early in one’s life and this in turn affected pay.

So here are some initial thoughts on this component of patriarchy.


Job segregation by sex restricted women in several ways. It made it easier to give lower pay to women via claims that the kind of work they did was less valuable. It thus helped make women poorer on average than men. It also meant women couldn’t get some kinds of experience and education that fitted them for political roles, for example, because they couldn’t be lawyers or go to university. And it wasted their talents, by not allowing them into roles for which they were suited; it also wasted the talents of some men who had particular skills in ‘feminine’ occupations.

Lower pay for women made them poorer on average than men, which in a vicious circle would have made them more willing to accept poorly paid work. In the opposite way, those (mostly men) who gained more from wage labour had the opportunity to invest, to get more credit or to make social connections that would help them become better paid still. Lower-paid work also generally means lower-status work, which in the modern world affects subjective well-being and social transactions generally.

Change over time

This is one of the topics I’ll need to do most reading up on, as I haven’t studied economic history before. My initial impression is that there are two different scholarly narratives about job segregation in the premodern world. One view is that women were only allowed a relatively small number of occupations and that number was gradually reduced in the medieval and early modern period as men took over and “professionalised” some previously female-dominated roles, such as brewing, weaving and doctoring.

But there’s also a new development, which has come from early modern studies that look at women’s activities rather than simply job titles. This is suggesting that women were working in most economic spheres but doing relatively unskilled/part-time roles. For example, Kathryn Gary at Lund University has written about female construction workers and other forms of female manual labour in early modern Sweden. So possibly job segregation in western Europe was more about different tasks within particular job sectors rather than completely separate spheres of men’s work and women’s work. That might also fit with some craft guilds that allowed wives/widows to be members, but not play a full role within them.

I know that there’s a lot of uncertainty and argument about wage rates in the late medieval and early modern period: indeed, a whole book has been written about it: John Hatcher and Judy Z. Stephenson (eds) Seven centuries of unreal wages (2018). And I’m also aware of scholarly debate about whether lower agricultural wages for women accurately reflects their productivity as compared to adult men. There isn’t data to look further back than about the thirteenth century, so this may be an aspect where it’s quite hard to know about trajectories.

I think generally for this aspect of patriarchy, I’m going to need to start from late medieval and early modern studies and see how far it’s feasible to work backwards. But I also need to look hard at how strong the evidence actually is for Roman and early medieval job segregation by gender, especially for agriculture and textiles. Are there actually a lot of jobs that both men and women are doing and we just haven’t picked that up?


There’s a strand of modern economic thought that sees continued job segregation and lower pay for women as having nothing to do with sexism and reflecting purely different skills/preferences between men and women and appropriate market rates for the job. It’s a lot harder to argue that for periods when you can see restrictions on women’s entry to some jobs, much less equality in education and less of a free labour market. I want for comparative purposes to look at some of the research on the exclusion of women from workplaces in the modern period, especially work by Mar Hicks on how numbers of women computer programmers declined.

More generally, I want to look at several different type of job to see different methods and patterns of exclusion, for example comparing doctors (who professionalised relatively late) with lawyers, where a male-only profession was always the norm. I also want to look at the effect of guilds, and ideally at arable agriculture (to try and work out the interplay of physical strength and cultural norms around who did what farming tasks).

I’ve already suggested some economic reasons for women getting paid less. I also want to explore how far back we can trace the impact of cultural norms that regarded men as the main breadwinner, which has had a lot of impact on women’s wages in the modern period.

Women’s agency

I want to look out for women who managed to get roles in heavily male-dominated professions. I suspect a number, like Artemisia Gentileschi were able to get the necessary training from their husbands/fathers/brothers. I don’t have any sense yet of how some women may have been able to improve their wages: were female-dominated craft guilds able to act like trade unions in that way?

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