So what about men in women-dominated professions?

Jan 31 2010 Published by under librarians

There's a lot of discussion about women in STEM and business and the barriers they face (justifiably so!), but what about men in the "female professions"? Do they face the same glass ceiling?

It turns out that there's a classic paper on this that coined the term, "glass escalator." It is somewhat classic, so I briefly looked for more recent work that cited it to see if it had been debunked, but didn't find any studies that did not confirm the results*

Here's the citation:

Williams, C.L. (1992). The Glass Escalator: Hidden Advantages for Men in the "Female" Professions. Social Problems, 39, 253-267.

In this article, Williams reports the results of a large qualitative study of men in Nursing, Librarianship, Elementary School Teaching, and Social Work. She selected a purposive sample of men (and some women who worked with the men, 99 participants total ) in four cities with contrasting proportions of men in these professions; i.e., high and low proportions. At the time this was written, the proportion of women in male-dominated professions was steadily increasing, yet, there was no increasing proportion of men in women-dominated proportions. In fact, the proportion of men in social work and librarianship was decreasing.

Prior to the writing of this article, there was this theory of tokenism: that the minority would face discrimination whether a woman in a male-dominated profession or vice-versa. Her results (and others found looking for disconfirming research) did not support this theory.

Men were given preference in hiring. Once hired, men were pushed towards administration roles, even when they stated a preference for staying in the classroom or library (children's department, especially).  Being male provided an advantage in promotion. She quotes her participants:

I am extremely marketable because I am a man.

I've heard this from managers and supervisory-type people with men in pediatrics:
"It's nice to have a man because it's such a female-dominated profession." (p.256)

Occasionally there were policies against men being, say, kindergarten teachers. Also men had trouble becoming deans of social work schools, for example, because the larger institution counted on using that position to balance other departments.

A participant who was a librarian talked about a particularly close and genial relationship with the male professors at library school.  Women who participated in class were excluded when the conversation continued in the office. Men get mentored more in female-dominated professions whereas women receive less mentoring in male-dominated professions.  The men network better and this helps them, too.

In contrast, outside of work, the men got a lot of crap for being in these professions. There's a stigma. Men in teaching were accused of being pedophiles or that they couldn't get a "real" job.


I've noticed that there are more men in leadership positions in libraries and there are certainly more male library school professors than female. I suspect that not much has changed since this research was done. Sigh.


* That might be too many negatives - I mean that the citing articles provided confirmatory evidence. Someone who knows this body of literature might know how this study is currently viewed by experts. If you are that person, please pipe up and educate us.

6 responses so far

  • Deborah Rowan says:

    It's true in OB-GYN. The small proportion of men entering the specialty disproportionately enter subspecialties, especially gynecologic oncology and urogynecology (both of which are very surgical) and reproductive endocrinology. Or they go into academic medicine/research. Of course, some of this is bias on the part of patients wanting their regular OB-GYN's to be female.

  • Alfred says:

    When I was in library school, we had a classroom activity in which everyone received 4 very short descriptions of individuals and voted for the best candidate to supervise a department. I thought the choice was obvious. In fact, I thought that only one candidate was even remotely qualified. That person was a woman.
    However, a man won the vote. It's been many years, but I vaguely remember that it was a landslide. I don't remember the exact descriptions, but there was some indication that the man made the workplace fun. As I recall, the man had no other attributes that would make him an attractive candidate.
    I was shocked that a completely unqualified candidate won. When I said so, one of the other students immediately said "Sexism." Several other students agreed. I said that's not possible because only a handful of men were in the classroom, and I knew that I voted for a woman. The student who had originally responded told me that women discriminate against women. Again, several female students agreed. I was the only one who challenged this idea.
    I have never understood this, but I haven't seen anything in the years since to contradict this view.

  • antipodean says:

    Male Midwives.
    I've actually met one.
    The medical research workforce is also 60-70% female in Australia so one can hardly call it male dominated.

  • Kris D - Sociologist says:

    This study is foundational for understanding gender in the workplace. Not only has this been upheld with subsequent research, but a very recent article shows how the "glass escalator" is also racialized:
    Racializing the Glass Escalator: Reconsidering Men's Experience with Women's Work. Aida Wingfield. Gender & Society, Vol. 23, No. 1, 5-26 (2009).
    "Why Marica You've Changed:"Male Clerical Temporary Workers Doing Masculinity in a Feminized Occupation. Henson & Rogers. Gender & Society, Vol. 15, No. 2, 218-238 (2001)
    Gender & Society is one of the leading sociological journals that features scholarship on gender, which is why these articles all appear there. Though the journal is international in scope, this work is all in US context.
    I hope this is helpful.

  • Christina Pikas says:

    This is excellent information - thank you! Nice to have a sociologist in the house. I'll look up those more recent references.

  • IanW says:

    Are you sure you didn't intend the "(justifiably so!)" to follow "There's a lot of discussion" as opposed to it following "the barriers they face"?!