The US labor market has undergone major changes in the types of occupations that are in demand over the last fifty years. Since the 1970s, many jobs and sectors traditionally dominated by men have contracted or disappeared. For example, the manufacturing and construction sectors – both heavily male-dominated sectors – were among the hardest hit industries during the Great Recession in terms of job losses, and jobs in the manufacturing sector have had an overall decline of over 50% since the 1970s.
On the other hand, the demand for jobs traditionally held by women has increased significantly, and these patterns are expected to continue in the future. In fact, women dominate the majority of industries projected to have the highest job growth over the next decade. If the jobs that women currently dominate represent the future occupational landscape, will men enter these jobs?
In a recent study published in Social Science Research, my co-author Jill Yavorsky and I looked at whether unemploymentwould spur men to enter female-dominated jobs. Women – particularly highly-educated women – have made significant progress in entering male-dominated occupations, but men have been very reluctant to enter female-dominated occupations. Many factors might discourage men from entering female-dominated occupations, despite many of these occupations having high job growth and stability. Men may face potential social stigma around doing feminine-typed activities, and female-dominated jobs pay less than comparable male-dominated jobs (and often far less). That said, even when female-dominated jobs do pay well, like in the case of nursing, men resist entering these jobs.
Does unemployment make men more open to doing “women’s work?”
On one hand, we might expect that unemployed men might continue to avoid female-dominated jobs in their job search. Men’s jobs are central to their masculine identities, and unemployment is a threat to this masculine ideal and their social status. Men might be reluctant to further compromise their masculinity by entering a job associated with femininity or women. In other words, the social stigma around unemployment – combined with lower wages – may not be enough to spur men to risk their masculine status to enter female-dominated work.
On the other hand, unemployment may act as a “shock” that causes men to consider jobs they had not previously considered. A shock can be described as a jarring event that prompts workers to reevaluate their current employment situation or options. The shock of unemployment—and the prospect of serious financial distress—may make men cast a wider net for job opportunities, including for female-dominated jobs. Unemployed men likely realize that having narrowly-defined job searches could lead to more serious consequences such as missed house payments, food insecurity, or credit card debt than men who are currently employed and have a steady income.
Our study supported the latter hypothesis: we found that unemployment made men more likely to enter a female-dominated job as compared to men that switched from one job to another job (without unemployment), suggesting that the shock of unemployment and financial concerns may push unemployed men into female-dominated jobs.
We also looked at how men fared when they entered female-dominated jobs after unemployment. We compared men’s wages and occupational prestige in their jobs after unemployment as compared to their wages and occupational prestige before they became unemployed. Our findings surprised us. We found that when men switched to female-dominated jobs after unemployment, their wages increased, on average, by four percent from their previous employment and their occupational prestige also increases. In contrast, men who eventually found new employment in male-dominated or mixed-gender fields either maintained past levels or lost ground in these areas.
It is important to contextualize the increases in occupational prestige that some men experienced by entering female-dominated fields. Many men transitioned from manual or service sector working-class jobs to entry-level white-collar female-dominated jobs. These white-collar jobs might offer greater long-term job security, given the precarity of many male-dominated working-class jobs. Moreover, the entrance into white-collar female-dominated jobs may be a springboard for future upward advancement.
The increase in wages that men experience in female-dominated jobs after unemployment (as compared to their pre-unemployment jobs) may reflect the “glass escalator,” or the advantages that men – particularly white men – experience in female-dominated jobs, including higher wages and a higher likelihood of promotion as compared to their female peers. The wage increase in female-dominated work also likely reflects that men are unwilling to enter female-dominated jobs unless they also gain higher wages. In other words, men might be willing to take a wage cut in a mixed- or male-dominated job after a bout of unemployment, but they wouldn’t be willing to take a female-dominated job that also comes with a decrease in wages.
Our findings indicate that it may take a major personal economic event to “shock” men into considering female-dominated jobs as a potential option. Without a major disruption to men’s employment and/or financial situation, many men may not consider entering a female-dominated occupation, especially given that it might only make economic sense to do so when they are coming from unemployment. Involuntary unemployment likely acts as a jarring event that makes men more conscious of the availability and potential stability of female-dominated jobs and more open to working in them, particularly in the face of possible financial consequences of maintaining narrow job-searches and not securing employment.
Our findings suggest that men may be pushed into female-dominated work because of a lack of labor market alternatives. That said, we also find that entering a female-dominated job (compared to other job types) may help men mitigate common scarring effects of unemployment such as wage losses and occupational prestige downgrades.
While the movement of men into female-dominated jobs has the potential to decrease occupational segregation and improve gender wage equity, wages in female-dominated jobs remain substantially lower than wages in mixed- and male-dominated jobs. In other words, a female-dominated job in health care, education, or other services is not a good replacement – in terms of wages – for a male-dominated jobs in manufacturing or construction. While female-dominated occupations may help some unemployed men move out unemployment and improve their wages and occupational prestige, female-dominated occupations are not mitigating the larger decline and loss of many male-dominated occupations in today’s economy.
Jill Yavorsky and Janette Dill.* “Does unemployment predict male entry into female-dominated occupations” in Social Science Research. 2019.
*Both authors contributed equally
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