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'Gendered' Jobs Are on the Decline, But Stereotypes Remain

image for skyNext/Shutterstock
skyNext/Shutterstock
  • Designating a job as "female" can automatically diminish its authority, even among the minority of men in the field.
  • Luckily, gender lines are blurring, with new posts in female-dominated fields increasingly being filled by men and vice versa.

It's telling that when Googling "male nurse," you're immediately prompted with the question "what is a male nurse called?" (The top answer, by the way, is "a male nurse in the UK is called a nurse." This applies to every English-speaking country, as far as I know.) It seems that some professions are so gendered that it's become built into their de facto definition. Gender-marked job titles such as "midwife" and "mailman" actively encourage gender being part of their definitions.  

While some gendered jobs are clearly rooted in stereotypes – e.g., women as nurturers, men as financial decision-makers – others seem to be more randomly assigned. Like, who decided that bank telling is women's work and driving taxis is men's work?

The history of computing gives further testament to the arbitrariness of gendered occupations. In the early days of the industry, computer programming was considered on par with secretarial work, meaning programmers were typically women – known as "computer girls." As the field became more complex, demanding higher-skilled, better-paid workers, computing was "upgraded" to men's work, deemed too advanced for women. Today's male-dominated tech industry is the result.

Pop culture can also play a role in promoting occupational stereotypes. Whitney Joy Smith, president of Smith Investigation Agency, has to not only explain to people that real private detectives don't surveil people like in the movies, but also reckon with their gender assumptions.  

"As women in the industry, we hear shock from a multitude of clients when they ask to speak with an investigator while over the phone and we inform them they are speaking with one," Smith said. "This is an older stigma that we are looking to break. The days of a retired cop in a homburg hat are long behind us."

Meanwhile, the men and women who do break down gender boundaries are often perceived as less masculine or feminine. Even academia reinforces this – a paper from the '80s said men in female-dominated professions were more likely to have greater "'tender-minded' emotional sensitivity" and distant relationships with their fathers. While such Freudian analyses may no longer be in vogue, the stigma remains. It's no wonder that men entering female-dominated professions tend to abandon them.

Decades of man-as-breadwinner stereotyping have led to the view that if a job is high-skill and high-paying, it's man's work; the programming example illustrates this. A 2017 study, however, found the converse to also be true: When a profession is arbitrarily assigned to men, it's perceived as more credible.  

The study reached this conclusion by examining a relatively gender-neutral profession – loan managers – for a Central American bank. They found that when borrowers were paired with male loan managers, they were more likely to be compliant than those paired with female managers, who were more likely to miss a payment.

Interestingly enough, when those initially paired with female managers were switched to a different manager, noncompliance rates remained the same, regardless of the second manager's gender. Apparently, all it took was knowing one person of an occupation to assign it a gender, and when that gender was female, the occupation was taken less seriously.   

No need to explain why this is harmful for women, but it also disincentivizes men from crossing gender barriers.

"Both have made strides of improvement in the past few decades, but likely women in male-dominated industries have made more significant strides than men in female-dominated industries," Smith said. Male-dominated occupations have traditionally had more respect, higher pay and more fringe benefits – all ample reason for women to break the stereotype. Men in female-dominated professions, meanwhile, face stigma without the financial incentive.

There are two ways to solve the gendered professions problem. One is to stop viewing female-dominated professions as less credible. The other is to eliminate such arbitrary gender designations altogether.

Luckily, there seems to be some evidence on the latter. A study by recruiting company CareerBuilder attempted to track the blurring of gender lines, measuring the percentage of new jobs in gender-skewed occupations filled by members of the opposite sex. The findings are promising, as many male- and female-dominated fields are becoming more balanced.

"Women and men are sidestepping preconceived notions and crossing over into roles that historically have been heavily populated by the opposite sex," said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer for CareerBuilder at the time of the study, in a statement.

The study found that nearly one-quarter of the new jobs in typically male-dominated occupations, such as CEOs, lawyers, surgeons, web developers, chemists and producers, were filled by women between 2009 and 2017. Overall, 23% of all jobs traditionally held by men are now held by female workers. [Related: Want more job applicants? Use gender-neutral wording.]

Similarly, men filled 30% of the new jobs in positions typically held by women over the last eight years. The research shows that 27% of all female-dominated occupations, such as education administrators, pharmacists, interior designers, cooks, accountants and human resources managers, are currently held by male workers.

"Over the last 10 years, women have been gaining ground in management, law and various STEM-related roles," Haefner said. "More men are moving into education and training, support roles, and creative fields."

The study is based on an analysis of data in 2009 to 2017 from Emsi, CareerBuilder's labor market analysis arm, which pulls information from multiple federal and state labor market sources. While the data ranks jobs according to gains made by the opposite gender, what it doesn't show is the original gender breakdown of the occupation, meaning some may have only slightly skewed one way or the other.

This may explain some of the more surprising distinctions, like marketing managers as "male" jobs or accounting and auditing jobs as "female" jobs, neither of which have strong associations with either gender.

According to the research, these are the male-dominated jobs where women made the most gains, and the percentage of women filling those roles:

  1. Lawyers: 48%
  2. Veterinarians: 48%
  3. Commercial and industrial designers: 48%
  4. Marketing managers: 47%
  5. Optometrists: 43%
  6. Management analysts: 43%
  7. Sales managers: 43%
  8. Producers and directors: 42%
  9. Chemists: 42%
  10. Coaches and scouts: 41%
  11. Private detectives and investigators: 41%
  12. Emergency medical technicians and paramedics: 40%
  13. Financial analysts: 40%
  14. Team assemblers: 40%
  15. Computer systems analysts: 34%
  16. General and operations managers: 33%
  17. Firefighters: 32%
  18. Surgeons: 31%
  19. Web developers: 31%
  20. Dentists (general): 31%
  21. Chief executives: 28%

The study shows that these are the female-dominated jobs where men made the most gains, and the percentage of men filling those roles:

  1. Cooks (institution and cafeteria): 64%
  2. Merchandise displayers and window trimmers: 59%
  3. Retail salespeople: 58%
  4. Pharmacists: 50%
  5. Education administrators (postsecondary): 49%
  6. Elementary school teachers (except special education): 49%
  7. Bartenders: 48%
  8. Insurance sales agents: 43%
  9. Market research analysts and marketing specialists: 42%
  10. Accountants and auditors: 41%
  11. Technical writers: 42%
  12. Interior designers: 41%
  13. Fitness trainers and aerobics instructors: 40%
  14. Telemarketers: 40%
  15. Training and development specialists: 39%
  16. Respiratory therapists: 37%
  17. Human resources managers: 37%
  18. Nurse anesthetists: 37%
  19. Physician assistants: 36%
  20. Public relations specialists: 36%

"While there is still room for improvement in terms of finding balance, there seems to be less gender bias when it comes to hiring and choosing career paths," Haefner said.

As men and women have begun to branch out their career aspirations, consumer demand is also a driving force of change.

On the rise of men in the wedding planning industry, "I think client expectations drove industry change to make it more gender-inclusive," said Lauren Grech, CEO of LLG Events. "Wedding planning is no longer just the bride and her mother or the mother of the groom … LGBTQ+ couples have changed the dynamic of the wedding industry to allow all couples to embrace planning together, because there are no longer gender-specific roles."

Even the events industry has its gender marking, however. "It's very difficult to kick the habit of calling it a 'bridal industry,'" Grech said.

There are also advantages to bringing new perspectives to tired fields. "Most people know that women are intuitive, creative, trusting … so they quickly understand that working with female investigators can have better success," Smith said. "It's especially beneficial as many people assume investigators are men, so women in the industry tend to go more unnoticed, which is very helpful while investigating a person of interest."

Additional reporting by Chad Brooks.

Siri Hedreen

Siri Hedreen is a graduate of King’s College London, where she wrote for Roar News, London Student and Edinburgh Festivals Magazine. Find her on Twitter @sirihedreen.