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Men Are Doing Increasingly Well in Female-Dominated Fields

Are women feeling stress as men enter female-dominated job markets?

In comedian Ben Stiller’s popular “Meet the Parents” movies, a running joke is that Stiller was a male nurse, definitely a non-macho occupation. Some men have traditionally avoided that job, perhaps believing that their self-esteem would suffer if they had to answer to a patient who called out, “nurse!”

Stiller’s movies can still draw laughs, but that particular gag line has lost its edge. Males used to steer clear of “female” jobs; however, that is changing, as manufacturing jobs disappear and more and more men face unemployment. A 2019 study by Jill E. Yavorsky of the University of North Carolina and Janette Dill of the University of Minnesota found that unemployed men are much more likely than those in the past to move into female-dominated jobs.

Any lingering social stigma may vanish as men who enter such jobs get around 4 percent wage increases and more prestige. The researchers say, “Our study suggests that female-dominated jobs may help mitigate common scarring effects of lost wages or prestige in a man’s subsequent job after being unemployed.”

Indeed, as men move into what used to be female territory, they are doing very well—better than women, in fact. In the 20 most common occupations for women, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research, men out-earn women in all but two.

White men are climbing aboard what’s coming to be called the "Glass Escalator." They get a double boost from being white and being male and rise more quickly than equally qualified women in position, pay, and benefits.

This scenario is in stark contrast to what happens to women who move into male-dominated fields. Historically, “token women” have faced discrimination and marginalization and were often overlooked for promotions, even when their work was stellar.

Intriguingly, the Glass Escalator only seems to operate for white men in female-dominant jobs when they are supervised by women or members of minority groups. (That applies to a lot of men, because women often have seniority in these fields.) This effect was uncovered in a 2010 study by sociologist Ryan Smith at Baruch College, City University of New York.

White-male supervisors also have a greater probability than minority men of receiving lucrative retirement benefits, thereby further widening both the gender and color wage gaps.

Smith suggests three possible explanations for why female and minority supervisors are putting white men on the Glass Escalator:

  1. White men bring their privileges with them when they enter female-dominated occupations, and women and minority supervisors may simply yield to the weight of these societal stereotypes.
  2. Women and minority supervisors may cater to white male subordinates to bolster the perception that they are fair and unbiased and perhaps to ward off any accusations of reverse discrimination.
  3. They may favor white male subordinates to increase their own status in the eyes of their white male peers and superiors. As Smith says, “Just as some mentors are partial to their most promising protégés, women and minority mentors may take a special interest in white male protégés because they possess two socially valued statuses.”

In the process, of course, women and minority males may be reinforcing job barriers built on a foundation of bias. By buying into the legitimacy of white male privilege, they make it harder for others to rise up the ranks and enjoy top pay, promotions, and benefits.

On the plus side, having men move into the “pink ghetto” could heighten the prestige of these fields and increase benefits for everybody. But this good effect could be blunted if white men on the Glass Escalator leave everybody else behind.

For years, the U.S. labor market was highly sex-segregated: men primarily worked in occupations full of other men and women primarily worked with other women. By and large, male-dominated occupations at similar skill levels paid more than female-dominated occupations.

Our labor market is so sex-segregated that almost 30 percent of full-time female employees work in only 10 occupations:

  • Secretaries and administrative assistants
  • Elementary and middle-school teachers
  • Nursing, psychiatric and home health aides
  • Customer service representatives
  • First-line supervisors/managers of retail sales workers
  • Cashiers
  • First-line supervisors/managers of office and administrative workers
  • Receptionists and information clerks
  • Accountants and auditors
  • Secretaries and administrative assistants.

In each of these female-dominated occupations, women earn less than men. More generally, women earn less than men in almost all occupations, whether female-dominated or not. Hispanic/Latina women have the lowest median earnings, earning just 55 percent of the median weekly earnings of white men, compared to black women who have median weekly earnings of 64 percent of the median weekly earnings of white men.

Even before men started moving into female-dominated jobs in any significant numbers, those few who did make the choice out-earned female peers. The Glass Escalator isn’t new, but now there are more men on it.

Today we face the prospect of a larger influx of men crowding out female co-workers, enjoying favorable treatment and further widening the wage gap. Professors Yavorsky and Dill say, “Employers also highly value men’s previous occupational background in male-dominated fields, allowing them access to higher level jobs.”

Women’s stress could very well increase under this scenario, as their self-esteem plummets.