While discrimination based on gender has long been studied, less attention has been paid to gender identity and how that affects individuals in the workplace. Debra Shepherd of the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University is studying how gender identity and gender expression affects people in the workplace.

Some of the preliminary findings from a detailed data analysis of almost 6 000 South African adult men show that gender-conforming men are more likely to have tertiary education, more likely to be in urban metropolitan areas and have higher income. They also have an employment rate of 48% while all other groups face a lowered probability of employment compared to gender-conforming men.

The study was done by Debra Shepherd of the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University who is also an Iso Lomso fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study and her goal is to have some impact on the way gender discrimination is analysed.

Shepherd used data from the South African Social Attitudes Survey which, for the first time, introduced questions around self-reported sexual identity and gender expression in 2015/16.
She said that although gender discrimination has been widely researched in economics, gender identity has remained under the radar of economists.

“Economics hasn’t ignored identity but it has ignored it in a more complex, sociologically informed way,” she said. “Most gender-discrimination research in economics takes a view of gender that upholds hegemonic gender categorisations. Identity is seen as a category to which you belong, and sex and gender are often thought to be one and same.”

She described gender framing as a cultural frame which is both descriptive and prescriptive. According to her research, shared cultural beliefs about categories lead to stereotypes which can be descriptive, for instance, beliefs about the typical characteristics of men and women as well as ideas about how men and women should be. For example, a stereotype in the workplace that men are more competent whereas women are more nurturing.

“Gender frames drive gender stereotypes through focusing on difference, inclusion and exclusion. This can lead to inequality…they mould the interests of men and women such that behaviour becomes actively gendered,” she said.

Shepard said how we frame gender is based on heteronormative ideas. Heterosexuality is seen as the norm and heteronomic constructions of masculinity and femininity are seen as natural. This supports traditional ideas of how masculinity and femininity are aligned in a ‘natural’ hierarchy.

“Within these constructions sexuality and gender tend to be perfectly aligned, which, of course, they are not,” said Shepard.

Shepherd also pointed out that gender framing operates in context and can come to the foreground or move to the background depending on, amongst other things, the salience of sex differences and stigma consciousness.

“If everyone accepts the social norms for gender framing then it gets pushed to the background. This is how men and women are so we don’t have to think about it. But if you are a woman entering a male-dominated space, then your gender identity can be pushed to the front. And if you challenge the accepted notions of masculinity or femininity you may be seen as a ‘token man’ or labelled ‘a bitch,’” she said.

Women are generally more affected by gender stereotypes and are more conscious of the gender game. But Shepherd also emphasised that what is typically masculine and feminine can change over time. In surveys she has done with her students she has found that many of the men define themselves as falling into the indeterminate category – not strongly masculine or feminine – so perhaps the definitions are beginning to shift.

Other research on sexual orientation and wages has found that overall women still earn less than men and that gay men earn less than heterosexual men.

The data also show some interesting racial dimensions. “Gender conformity amongst men is highest amongst white males,” said Shepherd. “For women, both white and black African females indicate higher representation of non-conformity.”

“This is the first time these types of questions have appeared in a dataset of this size. Most of the other data available come from small case-specific studies. So I’m trying to say something that has never before been shown using these kinds of data,” she says.

“My goal is to show a relationship that hasn’t been shown and open the arena for more questions. I’d like to have some impact on the way gender discrimination is analysed within my discipline. I’m specifically working with students, as I see my immediate context as the place where my research can have impact. My long-term goal is to transform the space in which I exist,” she said.