Sure, More Men Are Doing Pink-Collar Work, but Race Still Matters

Research shows that men in female-dominated fields make more money and advance more quickly--until you control for race.rn

By Akiba Solomon May 23, 2012

The New York Times recently reported how five years into the Great Recession current depression, a growing number of men are eschewing gender stereotypes and entering fields traditionally dominated by women such as nursing, teaching, social work and dental assistance. And in a phenomenon labor researchers have dubbed "the glass escalator," men in these so-called pink collar jobs typically make more money and move into managerial positions with greater ease. 

As I pondered the glass escalator concept, I felt the familiar nagging of an untold aspect of the story. Certainly I’ve witnessed men being rewarded–by other men and women–with more pay, perks and authority simply for being male. (I call it the Cookie-for-Penis Dynamic. Scholars, have at it.) Still, I have trouble believing that race doesn’t play as prominent a role as gender does in determining who moves on up. 

Drawing on interviews with scholars and workers, census data from 2000 to 2010, and an evaluation of academic studies, the Times piece does briefly mention race, noting that the trend of men taking pink collar jobs "has spread among men of nearly all races and ages, more than a third of whom have a college degree. In fact, the shift is more pronounced among young, white college educated men."  

For more of the race story, I talked to Adia Harvey Wingfield, a Georgia State sociologist the Times quoted who wrote "Racializing the Glass Escalator: Reconsidering Men’s Experiences with Women’s Work." For this 2009 scholarly article, she did in-depth interviews with 17 Atlanta-area black male nurses ages 30 to 51 who had at least five years experience in the field. Here, an edited version of what she told me:

In your study you mention how "subtle aspects of the interactions, norms and expectations in women’s professions push men upward and outward into higher-status, higher-paying, more ‘masculine’ positions within these fields." You also talk about how the typical pink-collar man is supposed to have the benefit of friendly relationships with their female colleagues and gendered bonds with male supervisors. How does race factor in?

A lot of studies about the so-called glass escalator argue that men [automatically] ride it to greater success in their field. In medicine, for instance, people assume that a male nurse is a doctor. Or if male works in an elementary school, he’s more likely to be mistaken for the principal. But in my research, I found is that it’s not the same for black men. The nurses I talked to didn’t describe easy upward mobility. They weren’t being mistaken for doctors and they weren’t getting a warm reception from white female colleagues or patients. 

One of your subjects, a 51-year-old oncology nurse with 26 years experience, recounted how he’d introduced himself as nurse to a patient while wearing his white uniform and she still asked him if he was from housekeeping. Another 36-year-old nurse said he’d given patients medicine, explained their care to them and the patients still said, "Can you send the nurse in?" That certainly doesn’t sound like a glass escalator experience.

Right. What I’ve found is that once you step out of the male/female paradigm and include  other factors such as nationality, class, sexuality and race, the picture is a lot more abstract than previous research shows. 

What else did you find in your interviews? 

Well [previous] glass escalator research has found that a major way men in [female-dominated fields] advance is by maintaining distance from women. They put down female coworkers with [statements] like, "I don’t want to do the girly parts" or "I’ll do the lifting; I’m still a man even though I do women’s work." When I spoke to the nurses I found that they were reconstructing their idea of masculinity. They were comfortable caring for people and showing emotions. They’d say things like, "Taking care of people actually makes me more of a man than other guys I know." 

So now "women’s work" is manly. OK. [Laughs.] So in a perfect world, what would come of your research?

Well, as a starting point, jobs wouldn’t be considered "women’s jobs" and "men’s jobs." The work would be about interest and skill level, not artificial breakdowns of what people do and don’t do. That would do a lot to rectify some imbalances, particularly in pay. If my humble study could push us toward starting there, I would be satisfied.