FROM PINK-COLLAR TO LAB COAT: New evidence of the diffusion of socialist norms of gender equality

New research explores what happens when two different gender cultures mix: the Soviet-type and the western-Israeli type (which is similar to the European or the American cultures). The authors, Naomi Friedman-Sokuler and Claudia Senik, find that:

  • In Israel, young women who emigrated from the former Soviet Union (FSU) are at least 30% more likely to choose STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) study fields than natives and other immigrants.
  • They are 50% less likely to choose ‘pink-collar’ study fields (traditional female occupations such as teaching and social work).
  • They exhibit stronger labour force attachment – longer working hours and higher earnings.
  • The higher their early exposure to FSU immigrants in middle school, the more likely are native Israeli women to choose STEM tertiary study fields and the less likely they are to choose pink-collar study fields.

The lesson is that, once ingrained, gender-equal culture tends to persist and diffuse. Like Eve having eaten the apple, once the normative barriers are removed, there is no return to a state of ignorance that STEM, or any avenue of career success, are open to women. 

Cultural equilibria 

In 2020, the gender wage gap is essentially due to two main factors. 

  • Occupational segregation – specifically, women’s underrepresentation in mathematics and science in school and in the labour market, while these fields are very much the avenues of professional success and high earnings. 
  • Women’s weaker attachment to paid work – career interruptions, shorter working hours and higher demand for time-flexibility – reflecting work-life compromises, where the presence of children plays an important role. 

Both factors are sustained by traditional gender roles and identity, and form a ‘cultural equilibrium’. The situation of women on the labour market, and the division of tasks within the household that goes with it, are anticipated and therefore influence women’s educational choices. But different gender cultures may arise depending on each country’s institutions. 

What was special about the Soviet-style gender culture?

Socialist societies of Central and Eastern Europe were characterised by two important features, the legacy of which is still visible today: 

  • The utmost valorisation of science and engineering in education, research and the economy. This served the priority of the military-industrial sector, in the context of the competition with the western capitalist world (arms, space race, and economic race).
  • The strong female attachment to work, harnessed to the objective of rapid industrial growth, and sustained by a host of institutions that made full employment and maternity compatible (e.g. kindergartens).

These features have created a specific and persistent gender culture in terms of: labour market outcomes, family arrangements and women’s performance in mathematics and science.

A natural experiment of cultural mix

This study explores the natural experiment created by the massive, sudden and unexpected inflow of Soviet immigrants in Israel, after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Within 10 years, about one million immigrants went from the former Soviet Union (FSU) into Israel, a country that counted 4.5 million people. This was triggered by the long-awaited freedom to emigrate from the ‘prison of the peoples’, the collapse of the socialist economic system and the Israeli Law of Return. 

In order to study the ensuing cultural mix, the researchers follow an entire cohort of women born in 1988-89, within which were 15% born in FSU (and immigrated as babies), 4% in other countries and the rest are Israeli natives. The study follows them from middle school up to higher education and the labour market, using administrative educational data, the Israeli labour force survey and income survey.

Stereotype threats do not revive

The study observes two types of cultural transmission of Soviet gender norms: vertical intergenerational transmission from FSU parents to their daughters, and horizontal diffusion from FSU immigrants to native Israeli girls.

These influences have unequal strength. Native girls are all the more influenced by the Soviet-style gender script as the proportion of FSU immigrants in their school increases, but the reverse is not true: no matter whether their ethnic group represents 5% or 50% or all pupils, FSU immigrant girls will systematically avoid pink-collar study fields, i.e. education and social work.

This asymmetry is a sign of irreversibility. Once the gender norms that keep women from certain fields have been lifted, there is no going back to a more traditional gender equilibrium.


Contact details:

Naomi Friedman-Sokuler: +972-52-5709521,

Claudia Senik: +33 6 16 55 75 15,