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Labor Day commentary: Men adjust to challenges of a down economy
0902Adia Harvey Wingfield
Adia Harvey Wingfield

READ A RELATED COLUMN: "Challenges remain for women in a  today’s labor market" by Madeleine Kunin

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the American economy is slowly and sluggishly recovering from one of the worst recessions in its history. Many sectors of the economy have been hit very hard by the downturn.

Estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that the construction and manufacturing industries have lost more than 2 million jobs each since the recession began in 2007. The financial services industry has lost more than 600,000 jobs in that time. Employment sectors such as education and health services were initially slower to shed jobs (though teachers were affected by public-sector cuts that came later).

Financial services, manufacturing, and construction are areas that tend to employ more men, while education and health services employ higher concentrations of women. These disparities in industries that have been most affected by job losses have led some to label this a “mancession,” presenting the argument that areas in which men predominate are taking the hardest hits. This approach has led to many claims that men, more so than women, are the most victimized during the economic downturn.

Yet if we look closely at some of the changes in men’s employment patterns during the recession, the data tell an interesting — and more complicated — story about gender dynamics and men’s work opportunities during these times of economic uncertainty.

Sociologists who study work, gender, and occupations have noted that despite progress toward gender equality over the past 30 years, jobs generally remain sex-segregated. Women remain concentrated in positions that tend to be lower paying, with lower status and prestige. This phenomenon occurs broadly within fields like medicine, for example, where women are overrepresented as nurses and men as doctors; and even within occupations, so that among doctors, more women are employed as pediatricians and obstetrician/gynecologists, jobs that pay less than specialties like cardiology and neurosurgery where more men are found. Research suggests that a variety of individual and structural factors — socialization, discrimination, market forces — influence these patterns and shape the economic and social gender inequality that occurs as a result.

Yet this picture of gender inequality is not the entire story. It’s not just that men tend to occupy the “better” jobs that offer more prestige, status, and money. Over the last decade, jobs that have been typically filled by women are now seeing more and more men enter them. Though this trend predates the recession, it is also worth noting that as jobs in financial services, construction, and other male-dominated fields have dried up, men can follow their hearts into professions that incite their passions — and for some, this path takes them into jobs such as nursing, teaching, and other positions typically associated with women.

A May 2012 New York Times article noted that in Texas alone, the number of male registered nurses has risen from 8.4 percent to 10.5 percent since 2000, and men in that state comprise nearly one-third of all first-year teachers. While the men identified in this article attributed their interest in these fields to personal choice, interests, and diminishing gender-based stereotypes rather than the painful effects of the economic recession, it’s also true that some of these jobs can remain a path to financial security in an environment currently characterized by economic uncertainty.

Historically, the men who worked in female-dominated jobs were men of color, often immigrants, though they typically were employed in lower wage positions in feminized sectors of the labor force — as home health care workers, in food services, and jobs of this kind. It is only recently that white men have entered traditionally feminized jobs in higher numbers, and perhaps not surprisingly, they have gravitated to higher status positions than those held by their minority male predecessors: White men in “female” jobs are more likely to work as teachers rather than as teacher’s aides. Yet as white men have made inroads into these female-dominated jobs, they still manage to retain specific advantages.

Sociologist Christine Williams has shown that white men employed in traditionally female jobs find that they are usually welcomed into these positions by women colleagues who appreciate the influx of more men into these occupations. (This is a stark contrast from the chilly reception many women describe upon entering historically male-dominated jobs such as construction, law, and engineering.)

These men also describe being mistaken for having a higher status, and forge close relationships with their mostly male supervisors as they consider their work in female dominated jobs to be mere steppingstones to more male-dominated positions. These dynamics lead Williams to conclude that these men ride a “glass escalator” to the higher status jobs in the fields; they enjoy special status even when they work in occupations where they are in the minority among women.

While white men have been the subject of most study, some racial minority men have also entered professions such as teaching, nursing, and other “female” jobs as well. The voices of these minority men are often absent from discussion of work and employment during the economic recession, but their experiences are no less significant. Racial minority men who work in these jobs are less likely to enjoy the advantages and opportunities white men describe in these female-dominated fields. For them, the “glass escalator” is often out of order.

In my study of black male nurses, many of my respondents stated that unlike their white male counterparts, they were rarely mistaken for workers of higher status in the hospital. While white male nurses were often immediately assumed to be doctors, black male nurses shared that they were more likely to be mistaken for janitors. Whereas white men enjoyed the support of their mostly white female colleagues, black men described repeatedly having to moderate their language and behavior carefully so that white female colleagues would not find them threatening or stereotype them as “angry black men.”

Finally, unlike the white men who actively attempted to distance themselves from the feminine characteristics such as caring and empathy that are attributed to nursing, black men nurses whom I spoke with embraced these qualities and argued that being comfortable exhibiting so-called “female” traits showed how secure they were in their masculinity. Real men, it turns out, do care — and cure.

Overall, studies show us that even though some male-dominated industries have been hit hard during the recession, there are still opportunities available for men despite the economic changes that are occurring. Men still have the option to pursue traditionally female fields that meet their personal interests, and they have the ability to do so at a time when gender stereotypes are perhaps less rigid than they were in past decades.

However, the existing research suggests that within these female dominated jobs, white men still retain advantages that may be negligible, or even nonexistent, for men of color.

Adia Harvey Wingfield is associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University. She is the author of several books that examine race, gender and work.

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