Research Findings

Men’s entry and exit from female-dominated occupations

October 22, 2018

Compared with the increasing number of women entering male-dominated occupations, the number of men in female-dominated occupations remains very low. The male presence in typically female occupations has hovered at the levels observed in 1980, rising only slightly from 8 percent to 9.5 percent over the ensuing two decades.

Much ink has been spilled about men’s reluctance to enter so-called female professions (i.e. jobs in nursing, teaching, secretarial work, waitressing, or child care). Researchers note that typically male occupations offer higher pay, more fringe benefits, and more opportunities for promotion than jobs in female-dominated fields. Furthermore, there is substantial evidence that men working in female jobs suffer negative stereotyping, adding a social cost to their career choice. Therefore, while entering male-dominated fields is crucial for women’s economic and social advancement, men have few incentives to choose female-dominated jobs.

Though these barriers have been well documented, less attention has been paid to the actual experiences of men who, despite the drawbacks, decide to work in a female-dominated job (see this  and this for some exceptions). I address this topic and examine the work histories of men employed in the United States between 1979 and 2006 (National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979).

Stopgappers: Men who enter female-dominated fields but leave shortly thereafter

When men enter female-dominated occupations, they violate stereotypical prescriptions about how men should be. At the workplace, they are expected to be competitive, ambitious, task-focused, assertive, and rational; owing to societal gender norms, these qualities are most often associated with male-dominated jobs. Also, the prevailing expectation is that men be the primary provider in the household, which becomes more difficult given the lower pay offered by traditionally female jobs.

What happens, then, to men who do not display these stereotypically male attributes in pursuing their careers? I argue that negative stereotyping and gender-specific pressures manifest themselves in high male exit rates. More specifically, I introduce the term stopgapper to refer to the occupational trajectory of men who transition from the non-female to the female-dominated sector and who are likely to reverse course eventually, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure1. Stopgappers’ mobility pattern

t-1 t t+1
non-female occupation female-dominated occupation non-female occupation


Stopgappers are more common in low-status than in high-status occupations

This particular occupational path is clearly recognizable when examining men’s occupational trajectories between 1970 and 2007.

The data in Table 1 below show that almost 70 percent of men working in high-status female-dominated occupations (i.e., professional and managerial occupations) were previously working in a non-female occupation. When these men proceeded to change jobs, only a third remained in the female-dominated field. The rest moved back to a typically male or gender-neutral job. I found male attrition from virtually every female-dominated occupation, but primarily among elementary school teachers, health technologist and technicians, and social workers.

Men working in low-status female professions were even more likely to be stopgappers. Only 19 percent of men stayed in such jobs, with sales workers, housekeeper and butlers, and kitchen workers being the occupations these men abandoned most frequently.

Table 1. Occupation of origin and destination of men in female-dominated occupations. Only men.

Managerial and Professional workers
Type of occupation t-1 t t+1
Female-dominated 28.66 100 33.53
Neutral 25.61 27.30
Male-dominated 39.43 37.39
Unemployed 6.30 1.78
Sales, Clerical, Service and Blue-collar workers
t-1 t t+1
Female-dominated 15.75 100 18.56
Neutral 24.36 23.87
Male-dominated 52.42 52.38
Unemployed 7.47 5.20

Gender norms as a push factor

The tendency for men to leave female professions remained strong even after taking into consideration various characteristics (e.g., age, educational level, field of study, and family status) and work-related features (e.g., full-time employment, job tenure, unemployment episodes, years of experience in the job market, etc.).  Controlling for these variables confirmed the existence of this stopgapper phenomenon among the male workforce.

As I mentioned above, stopgappers are more common in low-status than in high-status occupations. There are some interesting reasons why.

First and foremost, stigmatization might be higher in low-status occupations. We know from previous studies that female qualities tend to be culturally devalued, the result being that men often refuse to be associated with women’s work—so much so that some even prefer unemployment to taking female jobs. Workers in professional and managerial occupations, however, are more likely to have gender-egalitarian attitudes than employees from the service, clerical, and blue-collar sectors.

Second, high-status occupations have been affected by shifting gender norms. Some female-dominated occupations are no longer as heavily associated with feminine attributes (e.g., caretaking) as others. As the presence of women in the labor market has increased, the female-dominated sector has expanded, and many high-status positions that were male-dominated in 1980 became female-dominated by the 2000s. This is the case with jobs involving extensive coordinating, training, and supervising duties (e.g., service and health organization managers, legal assistants, educations counselors, and vocational supervisors). Since these jobs resemble stereotypically male occupations more closely than do low-status female jobs (such as librarians or kindergarten teachers), men entering them might suffer less negative stereotyping, and thus less pressure to leave.

Possible solutions

Stopgappers represent a group of men who, due to gender-specific pressures, leave the female-dominated sector. This has negative consequences for segregation, because the continual exit of men from female occupations further reproduces occupational gender segregation.

Increasing the number of men in female-dominated occupations is therefore crucial for reducing such segregation. Retaining even a small number of men within a female-dominated profession would spur long-term integration. The presence of these men would elevate the perceived status of an occupation, and that career would in turn attract more men, thereby initiating a virtuous cycle for occupational integration.

What can be done to speed up this process? Because the mechanisms that contribute to the perpetuation of segregation in female occupations are different from those involved in male-dominated occupations, specific policy actions need to be developed to promote integration.

Evidence shows that egalitarian attitudes, better working conditions, and lower rates of stigmatization have slowly increased the presence of males in high-status female-dominated occupations relative to low-status female-dominated ones. In contrast, low-status occupations continue to be highly segregated and suffer from cultural devaluation. Thus, only by revealing and eradicating the disincentives to work in female-dominated occupations—particularly in the less prestigious occupations—will it be possible to reduce gender inequalities in the labor market.

1 Comment

  • Reply Female Dominated Careers: Should Men Work Them? Style of Laura Jane January 13, 2020 at 2:19 am

    […] Work In Progress delve further than most, exploring why men exit roles lead by women. The website addresses how society expects men to be: “competitive”, determined and “task-focused” Qualities prescribed to male occupations. If they lost these traits in female dominated careers, they may lose confidence and head back to male-driven trades. […]

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