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The shock of unemployment may push men into jobs traditionally held by women, study shows

Those men not only found jobs again but also got a pay bump.

A new study finds that one particular factor — the loss of a job — could explain why some men are willing to take jobs in female-dominated industries, such as nursing. (iStock)

Over the past several decades, women have marched into male-dominated industries such as medicine, law and finance. Men, meanwhile, have been less willing to enter occupations dominated by women — fields such as nursing and education — even as those jobs have been growing much faster.

But a new study found that one particular “shock” factor — the loss of a job — could explain why some men are willing to take jobs in occupations traditionally dominated by women.

Men who worked in male-dominated occupations and became unemployed were more likely to take jobs in female-dominated industries than men who changed jobs without a gap in their employment, the researchers found.

“One of the biggest takeaways is that economic conditions really matter for whether men go into female-dominated jobs,” said Jill Yavorsky, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who co-wrote the study. Unemployment, she said, “may act as a trigger event that encourages them to consider new alternatives.”

The latest jobs report showed that women outnumbered men among payroll jobs for only the second time, boosted by higher job growth in traditionally female fields such as health care and education. (The figures do not include self-employed workers or farmworkers — men still outnumber women in the total workforce.) Those industries are growing faster than fields dominated by men, such as manufacturing and goods production.

Women outnumber men in the American workforce for only the second time

Christine Williams, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin who has researched what happens when men enter professions dominated by women, said she liked the authors’ description of unemployment as a “shock.” “You have to be somehow taken out of your routine. If you’re just sitting there talking to a guidance counselor, it may not jump out at you that you want to work in health care, but we’re in an economy right now where [not everyone] has a lot of options.”

The study, published in the January issue of the journal Social Science Research, examined eight years of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation. It found that among the men who worked in male-dominated industries or those with mixed-gender workforces — and then became unemployed — 19 percent chose to go into female-dominated occupations. Among men who did not experience a job loss, just 12 percent made a similar move.

The study also found that men who went into female-dominated jobs not only became employed again — they also experienced, on average, a 4 percent wage increase and a boost in the “prestige” rating of their occupation, compared with the one they had before they lost their jobs.

Yavorsky cited a couple of possible explanations. One may be that men are willing to take positions stigmatized as “pink-collar” jobs only if they are compensated more highly through pay or status. The other could be that some of the men in the sample who became unemployed were in jobs that paid even less than those dominated by women.

The growth in female-dominated occupations has largely been at the bottom and the top of the wage scale — with jobs such as home health aides on the low end and nurse practitioners on the high end, Yavorsky said. Meanwhile, jobs that have long offered women a path to the middle class are getting hollowed out, with more than 2.1 million administrative support and office support jobs shed since 2000.

Administrative assistant jobs helped propel many women into the middle class. Now they’re disappearing.

Mike Ward, who recently finished a master’s program to become a nurse practitioner after 11 years as an emergency room and intensive care unit nurse, decided to go into nursing after being laid off as an oil field roughneck in 2000, working for a drilling company in the Gulf of Mexico. He bounced around for several years, fueling airplanes, working in a paper mill and doing jobs for an electrical company before finally qualifying for financial aid and getting into school in 2003.

He had long had an interest in medicine — but he said he had to look past stigmas associated with men going into nursing. “I was going from job to job [where] there was an income ceiling I couldn’t break through,” said Ward, 43, who is based in Fort Worth and now makes six figures and serves as vice president of the American Association for Men in Nursing. “My closest friends — they poked at me a little bit, but they’re not laughing anymore.”

Yavorsky is careful to note that “unemployment is not a viable strategy for getting more men to go into female-dominated jobs.” But she said employers may want to rethink how they pay jobs traditionally considered feminine or masculine, such as human resources and finance.

Indeed, a big recession with widespread unemployment happened not that long ago — but had a relatively minor effect on gender-based job segregation, notes Betsey Stevenson, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan who was also an economic adviser in the Obama administration.

“Think about how big the unemployment shock was in 2008, and we didn’t see a big realignment,” Stevenson said. Shifting the gender balance of different jobs will take more of a societal shift, she said.

“I think one of the challenges for men is we need to see more cultural images that reshape our notions of traditionally female jobs as actually being jobs that are more gender-neutral and more consistent with masculinity,” she said.

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