Men are leaving feminizing occupations

January 29, 2023

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Men are leaving feminizing occupations

Many women and men still work in sex-typed occupations. One important reason for this is that men are selectively leaving occupations that are increasingly taken up by women, a recent Swiss study has shown. This could explain swings in the gender compositions of jobs and why some specializations within occupations become female or male-dominated.

Despite progress toward gender equality in recent decades, most women and men still work in different occupations. For example, many care jobs are held by women while blue-collar jobs are dominated by men. This sex segregation has previously been linked to three factors. First, men have advantages in accessing higher status jobs. Second, stereotypes about men’s and women’s abilities and preferences guide occupational choices, e.g. men work in jobs that require math skills or physical strength, while women prefer roles that require social skills or creativity. Finally, the stereotypical division of labor in heterosexual couples often results in women working in jobs that are compatible with family life, e.g. through part-time work.

However, the sex composition of many occupations cannot be explained fully by these factors. Additionally, in recent decades occupations such as primary school teachers and pharmacists have shifted from male to female-dominated, even though the corresponding skill profiles or work conditions have not changed substantially. Furthermore, sex-typed specializations within occupations cannot be accounted for by these factors. For example, radiologists are more likely to be men, while dermatologists tend to be women. To explain these inconsistencies, a theory developed by gender scholars suggests that men selectively leave occupations and specializations when the number of women in these jobs increases.

The researchers tested this theory using new methods originating in network science. In this study, the labor market is understood as a mobility network in which employees link different occupations by changing jobs. This enabled the researchers to analyze whether men selectively leave occupations that are increasingly feminizing. The analysis accounted for the occupational characteristics that channel women and men into different occupations and careers. The study used data from Great Britain, a country that shares important labor market characteristics with both the US and mainland Europe.

The findings clearly show that men are less likely to remain in jobs when a higher proportion of women enter the occupation.

What the researchers say: “For example, when comparing two hypothetical occupations that are identical in all occupational characteristics and only differ in the share of female inflow (25% vs. 75%), the analysis shows that men are twice as likely to leave the feminizing occupation,” the study’s author said. “The consequences of this behavior are explored through a simulation study in which women and men pay no attention to the sex composition in their occupation or its changes, when deciding to stay or leave a job. According to this simulation, if job movements only depended on occupational characteristics (such as wage, work-hours, and skill use), sex segregation in occupations would decrease by 19% to 28%.

These findings suggest that sex segregation is not only caused by sex-typed occupational attributes but also by men (and women) consciously or unconsciously avoiding to work in mixed-gender occupations. Perceived occupational characteristics might, therefore, also be a consequence rather than only a cause of sex-typed occupations. “Nurse as an occupation tends to be described with stereotypically female attributes, such as social and caring. If the majority of nurses were men, we might use entirely different words to describe the occupation, for example, requiring authority or being physically demanding,” the author concludes.

So, what? I’m not so sure that this study, though interesting, is on to anything new. My own, and many other people’s studies of hunter-gatherers show that there is a fairly clear demarcation in terms of gender in the limited number of occupations they have. Hunters tend to be men and boys (though it is possible for women to join in the hunt, it’s rare), gatherers tend to be women and young children (though, again there can be occasional male gatherers).

The reason for this is biological (men are, by and large, physically stronger and faster runners). The hunt can be dangerous and can lead to a high mortality among the young males of the band. However, the desire for the adrenaline thrill and dopamine reward of danger is built into male DNA (up to about age 35).

Women tend to be responsible for young children and gathering allows them to protect and supervise while they work. The oxytocin and dopamine reward derived from gathering is primarily social—talking, singing and gathering together.

Interestingly enough, over 70% of all the food (including the protein) consumed by the band is brought in by the gatherers and young children.

Some work is inherently non-gender specific: tool making, shelter construction, shamanism, membership of the council of elders (though some were all-male, these were rare).

It’s easy to see these gendered occupational divisions preserved through the last 10,000 years post the advent of farming and even today. It may be there is something within human neurogenetics and biology generally that leads to males to prefer working with other males in roles which demand strength, superior sense of direction (which hunting certainly does), speed and risk, and women to work with other women for socializing, communication and child development.

It's a fascinating area in which more study is needed.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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