Chapter 12

The Architecture of Inequality: Sex and Gender

Sociologists at Work


Richard Levinson

Uncovering Sex Discrimination in Jobs

In the period following World War II, there were men's jobs, and there were women's jobs. But the Civil Rights Act, banning job discrimination, was passed in 1964, and in the ensuing decade the federal government took a number of steps to further open up the labor market for women.

Nevertheless, in the mid-1970s many women were still reporting difficulty in being hired for certain kinds of jobs. Sociologist Richard Levinson conducted a field experiment that demonstrated some of the discrimination women were facing.1

Levinson had male and female undergraduate sociology students make job inquiries in response to 256 classified advertisements. The jobs were categorized as "male" (security guard, truck driver, car sales, and so on) or "female" (receptionist, hostess, cosmetic sales, and so on).

Working in male-female pairs, one partner made a telephone inquiry about a "sex inappropriate" jobˇfor example, a man asking about a receptionist position or a woman asking about a truck driver job.

About 30 minutes later, the other partner called about the same job. This time the person was "sex appropriate"ˇthe woman called about the receptionist job or the man called about the truck driver opening.

The students were instructed to be polite and to use identical words in their inquiries.

Levinson found clear-cut discrimination in 35% of the cases. The sex-inappropriate caller might be told that the person doing the hiring was out of town or that the position had already been filled. However, when the sex-appropriate caller phoned a half hour later, he or she might be told that the position was still open or was even encouraged to come in for an interview.

Ambiguous discrimination was found in another 27% of the cases. This type of discrimination ranged from expressions of surprise to subtle attempts on the part of employers to discourage the sex-inappropriate caller from applying for the job.

A replication of this study over a decade later found that these forms of sex discrimination still existed, although they were not as common as they had been in Levinson's study.2 Men and women in the paid labor force are still treated differently today.

1Levinson, R. M. 1975. "Sex discrimination and employment practices: An experiment with unconventional job inquiries." Social Problems, 22, 533-543.

2Winston, N. A. 1988. "Sex-bias response to telephoned job inquiries, Tampa, 1987." Sociology and Social Research, 72, 121-124.


David Newman and Rebecca Smith. (Created September 14, 1999). Copyright Pine Forge Press.