Why Are More Men In Women-Dominated Jobs?

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Andrew Smiler, Ph.D., asks if a shift in gender stereotypes or economics is responsible for the increase in men in women-dominated professions in the United States.

Over the last decade, the number of men in female-dominated professions has increased notably, according to New York Times reporters Shaila Dewan and Robert Gebeloff. Men are becoming teachers, nurses, and bank tellers in greater numbers than ever before. Not that men are about to outnumber women anytime soon; the number of male nurses nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010, but coupled with an increase in the overall number of nurses, men now hold about 10.5% of all nursing jobs.

In many ways, this demographic shift sounds like it could easily be the result of feminism and related efforts to promote gender equality. Admittedly, most of those efforts were—and still are—aimed at getting women into male-dominated professions and not the other way around. That said, the principle of equal opportunity suggests that men moving into female dominated positions is a fine thing.

Dewan and Gebeloff tell us that a “gradual erosion of gender stereotypes” is part of the explanation. Several men interviewed for the article said they’d chosen these jobs because they offered “less stress and more time at home,” reasons long endorsed by women. While women (on average) have generally placed more value on this component of work-family balance than men (on average), there have always been men who prioritized it. Perhaps we’re seeing more of it now because the current generation of fathers intends to spend more time with their children than their fathers spent with them. You’ll hear more about this (everywhere) as we approach Father’s Day.

A generational shift in being satisfied with one’s work is also at play. Many of us can tell stories about dads who went to a job every day at a place they hated because that’s what they needed to do to support their family. Having a job you like and that makes you feel good is something quite different. It ties into our sense that jobs are a part of who we are, and thus feeling good at work validates holding that job.

In many ways, this shift is as much about “old school” masculinity as it is about a “new” masculinity. Most people, male or female, still expect him to earn more than her. For most Americans, he’s still the primary breadwinner and she’s still the primary parent. Yes, roles are more equal than they were 40 years ago for the vast majority of couples. But it’s only a minority of couples where she’s the primary breadwinner and he’s the primary parent. 

Good, stable employment is key to being the primary breadwinner. During this Great Recession, the United States lost hundreds of thousands of jobs, mostly in fields that had been male-dominated, like construction and manufacturing. Despite all the amazing things computers can do, we still need a lot of nurses, teachers, and bank tellers. These are jobs that provide good, reliable wages, even if they’re not the kinds of jobs that make the “most desirable” lists. But if you’re good at being a nurse, a teacher, or a bank teller, you’ve got an excellent chance at finding steady employment, lots of potential employers, and a clear path for promotion. For a different generation of American men, those were the primary characteristics of a good job.  Even if they hated it, that job allowed them to support their family and, often, move into the middle class.

From that perspective, I’m not so sure what we’re seeing today represents a triumph of Equal Employment Opportunity laws, Feminism, or other gender-related initiatives. I think this is a triumph for economic policy and other federal decisions. 

National events that produce gender-related changes aren’t new. During the Great Depression, men often left their families behind and sought work elsewhere (typically out West). Immigration—legal and illegal—often follows this pattern too; men come to the United States (or elsewhere), then send money back home or have their families join them later. During World War II, women were encouraged to enter “male dominated” fields like construction and industrial manufacturing in the millions, then were told to leave when the men came home.

This is also a public relations victory for those economic policies. In the 1980s and 1990s when NAFTA was first being negotiated and words like “global trade” started to enter public discussion, Ross Perot warned us we’d hear “a great sucking sound” of jobs leaving the United States for Mexico. While he may have been wrong about the destination of those jobs, he was right about the jobs leaving.

That PR victory extends to the way that “old masculinity” jobs like manufacturing get portrayed in comparison to “new masculinity” jobs that prioritize satisfaction. In his book Affirmative Reaction: New Formations of White Masculinity, Hamilton Carroll takes this contrast apart in depth by analyzing Paul Teutel Sr. and Paul Teutel Jr. from the TV show American Chopper. The ongoing conflict between “Senior” and “Junior” is regularly presented in gendered terms, with Senior harkening back to an older masculinity in which men can be seen doing their work, with their hands, on a schedule with specific targets for time and products during a 40-hour (minimum) week. Senior’s work is routinely presented as masculine and contrasted with Junior’s soft, feminine work. In his computer-based design work, it’s hard to see what, if anything, is happening (in his head or on his computer screen) and deadlines are often missed. Although Junior’s designs may qualify as butch, his work and work habits are never described as manly or masculine. The show never acknowledges the larger cultural shift away from “traditionally masculine” manufacturing jobs toward knowledge and service-based jobs.

Gendered analyses of economics need to go beyond numbers of people in male- and female-dominated fields and beyond the “wage gap.” We need to start talking about how large scale changes—the shift away from manufacturing toward service and knowledge professions—connects to gender roles.

Andrew Smiler, PhD is the author of “Challenging Casanova: Beyond the stereotype of promiscuous young male sexuality” (Jossey-Bass, Fall, 2012).  He is a visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His sexuality research focuses on normative aspects of sexual development, such as age and perception of first kiss, first “serious” relationship, and first intercourse among 15-25 year olds. Follow him @AndrewSmiler

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