Compared with the increasing participation of women in male-dominated occupations, the presence of men in female-dominated occupations remains low. While much scholarly attention has been devoted to explaining men’s reluctance to work in female-dominated fields, little is known about the occupational trajectories of men who beat a new path and enter female-dominated occupations. (See here and here for notable exceptions.)

How long do these men remain employed in female-dominated occupations? Where do they find employment after having worked in a female-dominated job? Are the experiences of men in high-status female occupations comparable to those of men in low-status female occupations? Answering these questions is crucial to account for the stubborn persistence of occupational sex segregation.

In my recent research, I use the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLYS79) to study the work histories of men employed in the United States between 1979 and 2006. More specifically, I examine data for men entering and exiting female-dominated occupations. There are two main takeaways from my findings.

First takeaway

First, there is a disproportionate risk of attrition among male newcomers to female-dominated occupations, not only when compared to women but also to other men already employed in the female field. In the sample, around 8 out of every 10 men working in female-dominated occupations previously worked in a non-female occupation. When these men changed jobs, only a quarter remained in the female-dominated field. The rest moved back to a typically male or gender-neutral job.

Given these results, which remain robust after controlling for relevant socio-demographic features (age, educational level, field of study, parenting status and family status) and career-related characteristics (full-time employment, job tenure, unemployment episodes, and years of experience in the job market), I coined the term stopgapper. This term describes the occupational trajectory of men who, after transitioning from the non-female to the female-dominated sector, are likely to reverse course eventually. I found male attrition from virtually every female-dominated occupation, but the flight was most prominent among elementary school teachers, health technologists, social workers, sales workers, kitchen workers, and housekeepers and butlers.

The same pattern of attrition has been found for women entering male-dominated occupations. That might prove instructive. The exit of token female workers from non-traditionally female occupations has been well documented by Jacobs (1989). Using the image of a revolving door, Jacobs illustrated the continual departure of women from male-dominated occupations — and the concomitant perpetuation of segregation — despite women’s ability to enter male-dominated fields. Jacobs claimed that women are not only discriminated against at the point of hiring but also continued to face numerous impediments to performing their job effectively once installed.

However, the factors leading men to exit female-dominated occupations are significantly different. While women often leave male-dominated fields as a result of exclusionary processes, men are often welcomed by their female colleagues, who believe that recruiting men will raise the status and pay of their profession. Why, then, do men exit from female jobs so rapidly after entry? Findings point to the existence of gender-specific social pressures derived from expectations about stereotypically male attributes such as ambitiousness, competitiveness, dominance, and economic leadership. Such pressures can keep men from entering women’s occupations, so much so that some men would rather endure unemployment than accept a relatively high-paying women’s job and suffer the potential social stigma. Alternatively, these pressures can influence those men who have decided to enter the female workplace to exit. Regardless, the end result is the perpetuation of occupational gender segregation.

Second takeaway

The second main takeaway is that the prevalence of stopgappers — again, men who leave female occupations shortly after entry — is higher among men employed in low-status occupations (blue-collar and service jobs). Several factors account for these findings. On the one hand, gender-egalitarian attitudes have taken root more firmly in managerial and professional occupations than in service, clerical, and blue-collar sectors. Though the gender revolution has significantly reduced vertical gender inequality over the past thirty years, many occupational ghettoes persist in low-status, female-dominated fields (e.g., secretaries, nursery school teachers).

Image: National Longitudinal Survey of Youth

Moreover, stigmatisation continues to be higher in low-status occupations. Scholarly studies demonstrate that women are culturally devalued and skills perceived as female are systematically under-rewarded. However, the general bias against female-dominated work does not preclude the possibility of significant variability in such devaluation. In other words, some female-dominated occupations are not as heavily associated with feminine attributes (e.g., caretaking) as others.

According to the 2000 Census data (Census Bureau, 2000), approximately 40 per cent of the men employed in female-dominated, high-status positions worked in occupations that were non-female-dominated in 1980 (e.g., service and health organisation managers, legal assistants, educations counsellors and vocational supervisors). In that they involve extensive coordinating, training, and supervising duties, as well as specific vocational preparation, these occupations resemble stereotypical male-dominated occupations more closely than do low-status female jobs. Therefore, it seems reasonable to expect that the negative stereotyping and discrimination associated with men doing this kind of work would be significantly less than for other traditionally female jobs.

To sum up, this research’s core finding is that men leave female-dominated fields in part because they face gender-specific pressures, and that these pressures are stronger in comparatively low-status occupations. The term stopgappers captures these male occupational trajectories and contributes to the development of a comprehensive theory that accounts for the way structural inequality is reproduced. Furthermore, my research calls for specific policy actions to promote integration, since the mechanisms that contribute to the perpetuation of segregation in female occupations are different from those operating in male-dominated occupations. Only by revealing and eradicating the disincentives to work in female-dominated occupations — both economic and social — will it be possible to achieve gender equality in the labor market.