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Unemployment encourages men to try traditionally female-dominated work

December 15, 2019

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Unemployment encourages men to try traditionally female-dominated work

Unemployment significantly increases the odds of men entering jobs traditionally performed by women. And, notably, some men find real job advantages as a result.

The world labor market has been undergoing significant changes for decades, and some traditionally male-dominated work sectors have been shrinking. Accordingly, many men in these fields risk fewer job opportunities and frequent layoffs. Not surprisingly, male labor force participation rates have been declining.

On the flip side, jobs predominately filled by women have some of the highest expected job and wage growth for the future (like education and health care).

Overall, men have been reticent to enter female-dominated jobs, in part, because they often pay less than comparable male-dominated jobs, and because men may face derision from friends and family.

However, unemployment might change that reticence and encourage men to enter female-dominated jobs. And, somewhat surprisingly, unemployed men who move to female-dominated professions are finding that there are potential benefits—increased pay and occupational prestige, when compared to their previous employment.


When men do move to “female” jobs their wages increase, on average, by four percent from their previous employment and their occupational prestige also increases.

What the researchers say: The lead author notes that, before studying the data, the researchers came into the study with two competing hypotheses: First, unemployed men faced with the stigma that often comes with job loss might "hunker down" and be less willing to accept a further hit to their masculinity that might come from doing a job traditionally seen as "women's work." The alternative hypothesis was that the practical stresses of unemployment and lack of income would provide enough stimulus to encourage men to think about previously ignored career choices.

The US data clearly showed that the second expectation was true.

"What our study suggests is that unemployment may act as a shock that encourages men to consider job alternatives that they might not otherwise consider while employed," she said. "When men are facing potentially missed housing, car payments, or the lack of an income stream, that's really meaningful."

This school-of-hard-knocks effect seemingly results in an important social adaptation.

"This is particularly important, given shifting labor market conditions. Over the past several decades, male-dominated jobs—and especially working-class male-dominated jobs—have been disappearing. We know that the labor market is moving toward many female-dominated jobs, such as those in healthcare and education," the researchers noted.

There are a variety of possible explanations for why the change to female-dominated work means potential higher wages and increases in occupational prestige for men. During unemployment, men's searches for female-dominated jobs may be targeted toward upgraded jobs, in order to offset any stigma they may face for entering jobs traditionally thought of as "women's work." Additionally, men's previous experience in male-dominated or mixed-gender jobs may be more highly valued by employers, giving them a leg-up and allowing them to enter better jobs.

The researchers note that it is important to contextualize the increases in occupational prestige that some men experienced by entering female-dominated fields. "Many men transitioned from manual working-class jobs to entry-level white-collar female-dominated jobs, giving them more long-term security,” they said.

Moreover, the lead author points out, entrance into white-collar female-dominated jobs may be a springboard for future upward advancement.

"There is an interesting concept called 'the glass escalator' that has been pretty well studied over the last 25 years or so," she said. "The glass escalator describes the advantages men often experience in female-dominated jobs. Specifically, men – particularly white men – tend to have higher wages and be promoted more quickly than their women peers."

"Of course, we do not see the reverse situation for women who go into male-dominated jobs," she noted. "In fact, research clearly documents that women continue to face a host of disadvantages, including lower wages and difficulties in getting promoted."

So, what? There is so much to be learned from this study, and thankfully the implications of most of it are obvious. Most disturbing is the finding that (especially white) men in “female-dominated” jobs get higher pay and faster promotion than women. This disparity of perception between the career potential of men and women is something that I have often remarked on in TR.

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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December 15, 2019
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