Unemployment encourages men to try traditionally female-dominated work

December 03, 2019

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 U.S. labor market has been in the midst of significant changes for decades, and some traditionally male-dominated work sectors have been shrinking. Accordingly, many men in these fields risk unstable job opportunities and frequent layoffs. Not surprisingly, labor force participation rates have been declining especially among men in fields that have seen many of their jobs disappear.

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). While this is good news for women, these labor market shifts beg the question whether men will enter these female-dominated jobs.

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 for associating a central masculine marker, their job, with femininity and women.

However, an economic condition--specifically unemployment--might change that reticence and encourage men to enter a female-dominated job. 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.

In a study published in the journal Social Science Research, Jill Yavorsky (PhD) from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Janette Dill (PhD) from the University of Minnesota find that men who previously worked in male-dominated or mixed-gender fields are significantly more likely to transition to female-dominated jobs following a bout of unemployment.

When they do, their wages increase, on average, by four percent from their previous employment and their occupational prestige also increases. Men who eventually find new employment in male-dominated or mixed-gender fields either maintain past levels or lose ground in these areas, the analysis indicates.

The research finding is based on analyses from the Survey of Income and Program Participation, surveys administered by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Yavorsky 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 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," Yavorsky 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 really 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," Yavorsky noted.

"Research by economists and sociologists has pointed to the fact that if some men do not start to re-shift their job choices, they are at risk of being left behind, or facing persistent job instability due to frequent layoffs," Dill said.

What is further good news in the study for men, and even more unexpected, are the findings that men's wages and occupational prestige may increase in making the transition after unemployment -- over what they were prior to unemployment. Wages, the study found, increase for men entering female-dominated fields by an average four percent and the prestige of their occupation increases significantly as well, on the basis of the Nakao-Treas prestige score, a standard occupational measure in sociology.

"These potential wage and prestige benefits are meaningful because they suggest that taking a female-dominated job may help some men to avoid the common scarring effects of unemployment," Yavorsky said.

"A host of social science research has shown that workers often take a hit to their wages and job status in the position they take after unemployment. Thus, it is significant that in some cases going into a female-dominated job may help offset typical costs associated with unemployment," she notes.

According to Yavorsky and Dill, 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.

Yavorsky and Dill note that it is important to contextualize the increases in occupational prestige that some men experienced by entering female-dominated fields. Yavorsky states, "Many men transitioned from manual working-class jobs to entry-level white-collar female-dominated jobs. This is important because these white-collar jobs might offer greater long-term job security, given the precarity of many male-dominated working-class jobs."

Moreover, the authors point out that 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," Yavorsky 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."

Overall, given that men have not made much progress entering female-dominated jobs over the past several decades, this study shows that individual economic conditions really matter for men's job decisions.

"Our study highlights the fact that men open up their job options to include female-dominated fields when faced with unemployment. Not only that, but there may be benefits associated with going into these jobs--benefits that could have real implications for men and their families given the financial constraints typically associated with unemployment," Yavorsky concluded.

At the same time, she cautions drawing too large of implications from the study.

"A key limitation is that the data used only allows us to look at short-term events. We don't know how men's careers continue in female-dominated jobs, how long they stay in these jobs, or how their wage trajectory goes."
"Unemployment and men's entrance into female-dominated jobs" can be found online at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2019.102373 .

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

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