American women have just achieved a significant milestone: They hold more payroll jobs than men. But this isn't entirely good news for workers, whether they're men or women.
The difference is small, but it reflects the fact that women have been doing better in the labor market compared with men. One big reason is that the occupations that are shrinking tend to be male-dominated, like manufacturing, while those that are growing remain female-dominated, like health care and education. That puts men at a disadvantage in today's economy — but it also ensures that the female-dominated jobs remain devalued and underpaid.
"Female-dominated jobs in the working class are just not comparable to men's jobs," said Janette Dill, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. "So yes, it's great to see women participating at such a high level in the labor market, but it also really means continuing challenges for working-class families, because these jobs just don't replace manufacturing jobs in terms of job quality and wages."
Women now hold 50.04% of payroll jobs (which excludes people who work on farms or in households or are self-employed), according to the Labor Department's jobs report this month. (Men are still a larger share of the labor force than women, a number that is calculated differently — it includes people who don't have jobs but are looking for work; farm and household workers; and self-employed people.)
The only other time women have held more jobs was in mid-2010, when men were hit particularly hard by the recession and the decline in construction and manufacturing jobs. This time, the economy is thriving — but women seem better able to take advantage of it.
Reasons for the decline in work for less educated men are many. They include the rise of automation; the waning power of unions; rising incarceration rates; factories that move overseas; and hurdles to switching jobs like having to move away or return to school. But gender norms are a major and often overlooked factor. However much politicians talk about manufacturing jobs, the U.S. economy has become service-dominated — and jobs helping people have typically been done by women, while jobs making things have been associated with men.
Women's success in the labor market has been driven by their educational gains, and by black and Hispanic women. While women in large numbers have moved into male-dominated jobs, especially professional ones, the reverse isn't true. Women are 84% of social services workers and 78% of health care workers. Differences in the jobs that men and women choose are now the single largest cause of the gender pay gap, accounting for more than half of it, research by economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn has found.
Sex segregation is much more prevalent in working-class jobs than in white-collar ones. But even the more prestigious female-dominated jobs, like nurse practitioner or high school teacher, have failed to attract many men. Yet when men do so-called pink-collar jobs, they tend to have more job security and wage growth over time than they would have in blue-collar jobs, research has found.
One reason men are reluctant to take pink-collar jobs is that overall, they pay less than male-dominated ones. When women enter fields in greater numbers, pay declines, sociologist Paula England and colleagues have found. Jobs that involve caregiving, like health aide or preschool teacher, are particularly low-paying, even after controlling for the high share of female workers, other work by England has found.
Most workers have in mind the lowest wage they're willing to accept in a new job, economists say, and men who have left higher-paying manufacturing and construction jobs might be unwilling to take a large pay cut.
"The wages that nursing assistants and home health aides get, and child care workers and teachers get, communicate to society that these jobs are not valued compared to male-dominated jobs, so of course men don't want to do that," Dill said.
Another thing holding men back from service jobs is norms about masculinity. The markers of masculinity include earning a good income and distancing oneself from feminine things, research has shown. Taking a job traditionally done by women threatens both, said Jill Yavorsky, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
A new experiment found that when unemployed men looked at job postings, they were willing to take a job that employed mostly women. But if it called for stereotypically female traits like interpersonal skills or care work, they were not, found Dill, Yavorsky and Enrica Ruggs at the University of Memphis. Moreover, a study published in December by Yavorsky found that men, across education levels and job types, were less likely to be called back by employers for interviews when they applied for traditionally female roles.
Also, social scientists have observed that women seem to show more flexibility than men in training for and moving to new industries. Women who worked in manufacturing were hit harder than men during the recession, but they were also more likely than men to move into high-skill jobs and health care jobs.
Men who have gone into pink-collar work have viewed these jobs as a last resort after facing disadvantages in the labor market, researchers have found. They are more likely to be black or Hispanic and to have had the least education and the lowest earnings. Even though pink-collar jobs pay less overall, the men who take them often earn more than they had in jobs like manual labor, found a paper published this month by Dill and Yavorsky, using census data from 2004 to 2013.
When men take female-dominated jobs, they're more likely than not to use them as a stopgap, and return to a male-dominated job as soon as they can, found Margarita Torre Fernández, a sociologist at the University Carlos III of Madrid. Using data from the census and the National Longitudinal Study of Youth from 1979 to 2006, she found this happened in nearly every female-dominated occupation, particularly elementary school teaching, health technology and social work.
"Some men would rather endure unemployment than accept a relatively high-paying women's job and suffer the potential social stigma," she wrote.
Policymakers and recruiters have discussed various ways to address this issue, like bringing back manufacturing jobs, or emphasizing the masculine qualities of service jobs. But there's another solution, researchers say: improving the quality of pink-collar jobs, in terms of wages, stability, benefits and hours. That could both attract men to these jobs and also benefit women.
"There are immense economic benefits to these jobs," Yavorsky said. "Inevitably, if they were more highly valued in our society, I think men would be more likely to enter them, and women would very much benefit from the higher wages."
Improving the quality of pink-collar, working-class jobs has the potential to close gender gaps — and also to shrink the widening gaps between the highest and lowest earners, both women and men.