Monday, July 30, 2012

Janitors and Maids

Prompted by a Facebook discussion of my last post:

All this talk about professional cleaners got me to thinking about the distinction between janitors and maids.  Janitors tend to be men, while maids tend to be women.  According to the United States' Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up 30.3% of janitors and building cleaners, while they make up 88.6% of maids and housekeeping cleaners.  Why? What is the key difference that makes one more male-dominated and one more female-dominated?

Let's start with the job descriptions.  The job description for janitors in the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that "[j]anitors and building cleaners keep many types of buildings clean, orderly, and in good condition," while the job description for maids indicates that "[m]aids and housekeeping cleaners do general cleaning tasks, including making beds and vacuuming halls, in private homes and commercial establishments."  These sound like very similar jobs to me.  Both involve cleaning buildings, although maids also work in private homes and janitors are involved in keeping buildings in good condition, as well as clean.  I'm still not quite getting the critical distinction that accounts for the gender disparity.  

Perhaps the key is the presence of outdoor work.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that "[m]ost janitors and building cleaners work indoors, but some work outdoors part of the time, sweeping walkways, mowing lawns, or shoveling snow."  Traditionally, men have been assigned much of this sort of outdoor labor in our culture (with the exception of gardening, often part of women's work).  We assume that such labor requires greater strength, and is therefore more appropriately a masculine task, although the work of both janitors and maids is accurately described as "physically demanding" (a phrase used in both job descriptions in the Occupational Outlook Handbook).  It is interesting to note that assigning indoor work to women is also consistent with the idea of women living within the domestic sphere; in many cultures, women and girls are required to stay within the physical boundaries of the home, while men are permitted to venture into the public sphere.  Maids and housekeepers, of course, are in the public sphere, but if they stay inside, they are still in an appropriately feminine role doing "women's work."  Sweeping the hall may seem different from sweeping a walkway, due to their gendered meanings, even though both involve the same type of labor.  In addition to the intimacy of indoor (as opposed to outdoor) work I discussed in my last post, there may be an additional layer of gender performance involved in the indoor-outdoor distinction in commercial buildings.

Oh, and I noted one other distinction between janitors and maids.  The median hourly wage for janitors is $10.68, while the median pay for maids is $9.28 per hour (in 2010).  Maids and housekeepers are paid less than janitors and this, too, is consistent with gender roles.  A number of studies have found that we tend to assign greater value to men's work than women's work.  In one study, Canadian undergraduates assigned lower annual pay to a job that they saw as "female" than one that was typically "male", even though both jobs had the same title and description, requiring identical education, skill, and responsibility (Alksnis, Desmarais, & Curtis, 2008).  Merely the perception that one job typically has female employees led to a lower assigned salary than if it was perceived as having a typically male workforce.  Women-dominated occupations tend to have lower pay than do male-dominated occupations, and wages tend to fall within a particular occupation when women enter in large numbers (Reskin & Padavic, 1994).  Are maids and housekeepers paid less than janitors merely because they are in a female-dominated profession? We might even wonder whether creating a distinction between maids and janitors is part of a broader system of sex segregation that serves to perpetuate the wage gap between men and women (Alksnis et al., 2008).

In 2010, women earned 77 cents for every dollar a man earned in the U.S., on average.  While the gender wage gap has narrowed over time, it continues to persist and there has been little improvement in the last decade (you can see relevant figures by year at the National Committee on Pay Equity).  At this rate, it will take until 2056 to achieve true pay equity for women.  It may not seem like much -- how does 23 cents matter?  But it adds up over time : A woman with a high school education loses $700,000 over the course of her lifetime and a female college graduate loses $1.2 million as a result of the wage gap.  As a result of pay inequality, women are more likely to live in poverty and are less able to save for retirement than are men.  In short, the wage gap has a real impact on women's lives. 

What causes this discrepancy between women's and men's earnings?  This has been a topic of considerable research that I will not summarize here.  Suffice it to say that the pay gap is complex and most likely results from many factors.  What has interested me is the part of the wage gap that can't be accounted for by some concrete variable.  Even after controlling for occupation, the number of hours worked, education, job experience, and other relevant factors, a portion of the gender wage gap remains, seemingly unexplained (Alksnis et al., 2008).  This may, in part, stem from a general devaluation of women's labor or an overvaluation of men's (Pelham & Hetts, 2001).  When asked to pay themselves for completed work, men pay themselves more than do women; indeed, when paid a set amount, women work longer, do more work, and work more accurately than do men (Hogue & Yoder, 2003; Major, McFarlin, & Gagnon, 1984; Pelham & Hetts, 2001).  In short, women undervalue (or men overvalue) their work in ways that mirror the wage gap and reflect a general devaluation of women's labor (or overvaluation of men's).  Sadly, this means that even when women are paid less, it may be perceived as fair, since women's labor is undervalued and people tend to compare their earnings within sex (women compare to other women, men to other men) rather than across sex. 

I cannot help but think that the lower pay for maids and housekeepers relative to janitors is yet another example of the devaluation of women's work.  This devaluation harms women and those dependent on their earnings, as well as all of those engaged in "women's work," but most people fail to notice the inequities that pervade our system.  Many tend to see the system as fair and just, each earning their due.  Even those who are disadvantaged may be content, perceiving their situation as justified, unaware of the ways in which their work is systematically devalued.  What better way to maintain a system of inequality than to convince those involved that there is no inequality at all?

From the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook

Many thanks to all those who are reading this blog and especially to those who comment (here or on Facebook).  I enjoy our discussions!


Alksnis, C., Desmarais, S., & Curtis, J. (2008).  Workforce segregation and the gender wage gap:  Is "women's" work valued as highly as "men's"?  Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38, 1416-1441.

Hogue, M. & Yoder, J. D. (2003).  The role of status in producing depressed entitlement in women's and men's pay allocations.  Psychology of Women Quarterly, 27, 330-337.

Major, B., McFarlin, D. B., & Gagnon, D.  (1984).  Overworked and underpaid:  On the nature of gender differences in personal entitlement.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 1399-1412.

Pelham, B. W., & Hetts, J. J. (2001).  Underworked and overpaid:  Elevated entitlement in men's self-pay.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 37, 93-103.

Reskin, B. & Padavic, I. (1994).  Women and men at work.  Pine Forge Press:  Thousand Oaks, CA.   

Labor force statistics from the current population survey. Bureau of Labor Statistics,  

New study:  Men earn more than women within nearly all the most common occupations.  Institute for Women's Policy Research, April 17, 2012, 

Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 

The wage gap over time:  In real dollars, women see a continuing gap. The National Committee on Pay Equity, 

What are the costs of the wage gap? The Wage Project,

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