In the popular 2004 movie “Meet the Fockers” the fact that Ben Stiller was a male nurse was a running gag throughout the film.
But attitudes are shifting fast in our hard-pressed economy. Men are now gravitating toward female-dominated occupations, according to a recent analysis of census data by the New York Times.
The Times analysis showed that from 2000 to 2010, occupations that are more than 70 percent female accounted for almost a third of all job growth for men, double the share of the previous decade.
And 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. For example, the median weekly earnings for female social workers is $798, while for men it is $902.
White men in these fields 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 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 a promotion, even when their work was stellar.
A Unique Effect
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:
No. 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.
No. 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.
No. 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.
As is widely known, the U.S. labor market is highly sex-segregated: men primarily work in occupations full of other men and women primarily work with other women. By and large, male-dominated occupations at similar skill levels pay 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
- 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.
In the past, women’s rights activists pushed for equal pay for equal work, but the reality of a stubbornly sex-segregated work force has turned the focus to “comparable work” so pay parities could be considered between different sorts of work, such as secretarial and janitorial.
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.
Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, senior scientist at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center, are at work on the book “The New Soft War on Women,” to be published by Tarcher/Penguin.