Men have been entering female dominated professions at higher rates over the last two decades than at any time in history, that is, since these professions became associated with women in the first place. This shift has been largely due to the loss of manufacturing and other male dominated occupations that offer relatively high pay for little formal education. In other words, the decline of so called “Blue Collar” work in the changing economy.
As relative newcomers to “Pink Collar” occupations, we might expect to see men being outpaced by women in fields that have become associated with feminine gender stereotypes such as caregiving, teaching children, and emotional labor. In fact, the opposite is true.
If you happen to be a woman hoping to avoid the pay gap by entering a female dominated occupation, think again. Not only are the overall pay rates in such occupations lower due to the feminization of wages, the gap is actually more severe in many cases than that in male dominated fields such as STEM.
This article will take a look at some of the factors at play that create this disparity, along with some recommendations for how to use this knowledge to effect change toward pay equity in occupations such as nursing, early childhood education or social work.
Glass Escalator Effect
You have probably heard of “The Glass Ceiling” – that combination of social, institutional and cultural factors that operate to limit many women’s advancement to the highest levels of their occupations. This term, popularized in the mid 1980’s, has been used to understand the mechanisms that have kept women from ascending to the top ranks in their fields despite being ready, ambitious and qualified.
The Glass Escalator effect is basically the opposite. It refers to a complex process through which men working in female dominated occupations are propelled to the highest levels, often passing over women who are just as competent, accomplished, and ambitious. Rather than facing gender specific barriers, men are often perceived as more competent, more ambitious, and more capable for leadership than their female counterparts – even when they aren’t.
In her landmark work, “Still a Man’s World” (1995), Christine Williams documents the experiences of men in female dominated professions: nursing, early education, social work and librarianship. In case after case, many of these men reported persistently being pressured to advance before they were ready, given preferential treatment over equally qualified women, and seen as “natural leaders” even when they themselves did not have high ambitions for career advancement or even want to take on additional responsibility at work.
The Glass Escalator effect is so strong that men in female dominated professions actually advance even faster than they do in male dominated fields!
Reasons for the Glass Escalator Effect
Sociologists have put forward several theories to understand the root causes of this phenomenon. Like much of human behavior, there is no single cause. Rather, many different factors are at play, largely emerging in the context of micro-interactions between people in day-to-day life.
Here are a few likely reasons to consider as to why we see men advancing more rapidly, particularly in female dominated fields:
Since men are minorities in fields such as nursing and early education, they are more visible. Standing out from the rest of their colleagues may get them noticed by their superiors more, making their accomplishments stand out. Interestingly, this same effect does not seem to be helping women or racial minorities attain faster career advancement in fields dominated by white males!
Persistent gender stereotypes in our culture affect the way we make sense of the words, actions and accomplishments of men and women. For decades, many research studies have repeatedly demonstrated that observers rating the actions of men and women in work situations (such as actors reading from the same script), tend to see men as behaving in ways that are “assertive” and demonstrate “leadership.” Meanwhile, women acting out the same role are rated as “aggressive” or “emotional.” Clearly, stereotypes about “appropriate” gendered behavior have an impact on how we understand and/or reward (such as a promotions) certain behaviors.
Although the demographics of American families have drastically changed over the last 70 years, there are still persistent norms and expectations that inform labor inside and outside the home. Women still tend to do more caregiving and household labor. For men, this can free up more energy to devote to their paid labor and the additional responsibilities of leadership positions at work.
Socially coerced choices:
We will be investigating the role that choice is playing in the gender pay gap in another article. However, it is a fact that the choices that women and men make with regards to career advancement are also a factor in The Glass Escalator effect.
Social gender norms tend to put extra pressure on men from boyhood onwards to identify with being a primary earner in the family. Meanwhile, the same gender norms encourage women to identify with their role as unpaid caregivers in the home. Combined, these different gender role expectations contribute to patterns relative to the importance women and men place on career advancement.
Invisible labor in the workplace:
Related to the gender norms discussed above, women are more likely to feel an obligation and emotional pay off from doing free labor in the service of others’ needs or for community benefit. This so called “Office Housework” includes such jobs as buying party supplies, planning workplace social events, and emotional labor such as putting in extra time to console distraught colleagues.
This effect is often amplified for women of color. Since none of these duties are central to job descriptions, and because this labor is itself coded as “unimportant” by its very association with women, invisible Labor is a double whammy. Meanwhile, men benefit from these extra efforts to make the office a more friendly and sociable environment. Making matters worse, many men will go home to a wife that also does the bulk of the emotional and social labor for them – comforting children, arranging family events, and maintaining social networks with extended family and friends.
Another major mechanism at play in nudging the pay gap along in female dominated occupations is known as “Occupational Segregation.” This phenomenon occurs when we see men clustered in higher paying specialties within a given occupation.
Let’s take nursing as an example to demonstrate this effect. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2013), 41% of nurse anesthetists are men, compared to 9% male representation among nursing taken as a whole. Hold on to your seat here – male nurse anesthetists earn an average of $162,900 annually, while the average for all male nurses was well under half of that, coming in at $60,700!
Creating Equity in Female Dominated Jobs
As we have seen, the factors that impact the gender pay gap in female dominated occupations are going on at both individual and societal levels. Solutions need to also happen at both levels to attain real transformation towards pay equity in these fields.
Stop volunteering for free labor unrelated to your job responsibilities:
Ladies, if you find yourself buying candy for the front desk jar or organizing every birthday celebration, knock it off. Better yet, try to make sure those duties get on a rotation where all employees, regardless of gender, take their fair share of “Institutional Housekeeping” responsibilities.
Interrupt bias when you see it unfolding:
It can cost you a little bit of social capital in the moment to take a stand, but it can come with the reward of gaining the respect of your colleagues as well as open the door for others to feel empowered to speak up.
Don’t be afraid to take on more responsibility or show ambition at work:
Leadership sometimes requires sticking your neck out there, taking a side, and abandoning the goal of being liked by everyone all the time. The payoff? You gain the respect of your peers and are more likely to be seen as displaying competence to take on more responsibility when the opportunity presents itself.
Raise awareness about how gender is operating in the workplace through training programs:
Most people these days do not intend to be sexist. Confronting implicit and unconscious sexism can be difficult to do without encountering defensiveness and creating conflict that can make matters worse. However, when administrators raise overall awareness through training programs that do not single out individuals, everyone can become more intentional about not passing on gender bias with their own talk, actions and decision making in the office.
Men – You have an important role to play!
Men have a special role to play in creating gender equality in the workplace. When men speak to the gender inequity they see in the office, their perspective is often heard as more legitimate than when women speak to the same exact issues. When men choose to use their male privilege to help level the playing field, it can make a huge impact on workplace culture.
Furthermore, in those cases where overt sexism takes root in male-only spaces associated with work, men are the ones most empowered to make such language or behavior unacceptable by calling it out on the spot. After all, silence is complicity.
by Sharon Elber