Arguably the most dangerous drinking game to play during the 2016 election cycle (outside of taking a shot every time there was an odd pronunciation of the word 'huge') was to pound one back every time a candidate talked about manufacturing jobs. Whether it was accusing trade agreements of getting rid of them or extolling the down-home virtues of the folks who held them, the disappearance of well paying blue collar jobs largely held by middle and lower-middle class white men was a key issue.
While most manufacturing jobs are pretty much gone for good, jobs in fields such as healthcare and the service industry are growing rapidly, but they've been coded as off-limits for nearly fifty percent of the population, because they're dominated by women.
What makes a job "masculine" or "feminine"?
Jobs are heavily gendered; 36 percent of men and 31 percent of women are employed in occupations in which their own gender makes up 80 percent or more of the workforce. And just like toys and TV shows, much of this rests heavily on stereotypes; the idea that the "nurturing" nature of women makes them suited for professions heavy on soft skills, such as teaching, nursing, and waiting tables, while danger-seeking men are take to careers like auto-work and manufacturing gigs.
Stereotypes not only keep skilled workers out of fields they might find fulfilling; they also prove how a job description can be manipulated to keep specific paths gendered.
"Think about physicians," says Dr. Patricia A. Roos, a sociologist at Rutgers University who has written extensively on gender and work, told VICE Impact over the phone. "Physicians are nurturing; lots of healthcare jobs that have been mostly male are nurturing, supportive occupations as well. I think phrasing is kind of used to sometimes restrict entry."
The men who move into women's work…
Though it's made for plenty of enticing headlines in the age of the displaced rustbelt hero, men are hardly entering majority-female occupations in droves. As Dr. Roos' noted in a paper called "Integrating Occupations: Changing Occupational Sex Segregation in the U.S. from 2000 to 2014"(co-authored with Lindsay Stevens), so-called professional "masculinization" since 2000 has been led by the most disenfranchised workers—think black men and immigrants moving into majority-female low-skilled jobs, like customer service reps and crossing guards.
"Certain kinds of men—white men, more educated men—are more able to resist that movement into traditionally female jobs," Dr. Roos says. "But that's not something that more disadvantaged members of the labor market can do."
And needless to say, pay is a big factor for a semi-skilled man. Many of the fastest growing jobs, while heavily female, would also mean a steep cut in income. While the average home health aide is making just over $22,000 a year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a coal miner can expect an average starting salary of $60,000.
… and the women moving into men's
Occupational feminization, however, works the opposite way; many of the most "feminized" careers since the 1970s have been highly skilled professions like doctors, architects and lawyers. As more women graduate from all levels of education than their male counterparts, many professional fields are inevitably becoming more female.
"If there aren't enough white men to hire, they're going to look further down in the labor queues and pull women up into the field," says Roos. Yet the male glass escalator is still very much countered by the glass ceiling, which is still a fixture in most professions. Women consistently make up less than 20 percent of those in leadership positions—even in healthcare, where they make up nearly 80 percent of the workforce.
When Work Integrates
So what happens when men enter female-dominated skilled work? Prepare to be disheartened (but probably not all that surprised): middle-class, straight white men hop on what sociologist Dr. Christine Williams, who specializes in workplace inequality, refers to as the "glass escalator," receiving pay and mobility benefits that can prove elusive not only their female counterparts, but their black and gay coworkers as well. Meanwhile, as women enter fields dominated by men, the work begins to be viewed as less essential—and the wages take a dive.
That's not to say the men in predominantly female fields go without challenges; Williams' research noted that many of the men face everything from questions about their intentions to questions about their ability to find something "better" (read: more masculine). However, their female counterparts face their own set of micro-aggressions, such as the expectation to perform emotional labor around the office, paired with institutional disadvantages such as the gender pay gap (which, sorry conservatives, can't just be chalked up to women taking lower-paying gigs).
Though it's unlikely we'll ever see the former manufacturing workers flooding to women's work en masse, Dr. Roos thinks that, with a little reframing—not unlike computer science in the 80s—younger guys might take up nursing in particular; "It's not going to be those steelworkers or miners; it's going to be those young men, including those young white men, who think 'Wow, nursing pays a pretty good salary."
And who knows; maybe by the time those decidedly queerer Gen Zs get to the workplace (one will probably be completely different than the one we know today), their entry won't have to be at the expense of opportunities (or pay) for their femme counterparts.
Are you a man interested in nursing? Check out the American Association for Men in Nursing and Minority Nurse. Looking to uplift female voices in the workplace (and beyond)? Check out the National Organization for Women and Zonta International.
Editor's note: Much of the language in this piece is super cis-centric. If you're interested in learning more about trans people in the workplace —a fascinating and important study in and of itself— check out the work of Drs. Arlene Stein and Kristen Schilt.