What’s the Best Way to Get Ahead in a Female-Dominated Profession?

Be a man.

Male nurse holding clipboard.
Even in fields like nursing, men make more than women.

Photo by michaeljung/Shutterstock

Nobel laureate Tim Hunt recently caused an international stir when he suggested male and female scientists should work in separate labs, because women cry too much and either fall in love with their male colleagues or distract them. Hunt’s a jerk, but maybe he’s onto something—maybe women working primarily with other women would be happier, even if simply because they wouldn’t have to work with men like Hunt.

Research tells us that women in male-dominated fields may be more likely to prosper in small, women-only working groups. Female first-years in engineering felt less anxiety in female-dominant class groups than male-dominant groups, were more likely to contribute to group discussions, and reported higher levels of confidence and career aspirations.

Unfortunately the benefits of being a woman among other women mostly vanish in gender-balanced or female-dominated fields. As they entered the workforce en masse in the 20th century, the earliest working women tended to take on jobs men didn’t want—in factories, farms, or as domestic servants. Women were also funneled into jobs that required an “innate” tendency to nurture and serve: nursing, teaching, child care, waitressing. Coincidentally, these jobs are not highly valued in the workforce; today, women make up 75 percent of the U.S.’s low-wage workforce or the top 10 jobs that pay under $10.10 per hour. Out of those 10 jobs, women are the majority in all but one of them (hand-packers and packagers, where women make up 49 percent of the field).  

Making matters worse, low-paid, female-dominated jobs tend to be the ones that demand more “emotional labor”: the effort employees put into managing others’ and their own emotions. People who do more emotional labor are less satisfied with their jobs, experience more emotional exhaustion and burnout, and are more likely to consider job changes.

Perhaps the grimmest irony among many here is that even in female-dominated fields, often the fastest way to advance is to be a man. A recent study found that male nurses make an average of about $5,100 more than female nurses annually, and men make more than women in other female-dominated fields such as education and social services, too. In a series of interviews with male nurses and librarians, men reported feeling like they had been “fast-tracked” into leadership roles. Men also reported feeling that they were perceived as more competent, that people were more forgiving of their mistakes, and that older women in the field took on motherly roles toward them.

It’s not just nursing: Men often ascend the ladder faster in other female-dominated fields. For example, in the 2011­–2012 school year, 87 percent of public school teachers were women, but they made up only half of public school principals; women made up 83 percent of librarians but only 40 percent of library directors.

Even worse, the men making more than their female counterparts in these fields are likely doing less emotional labor. One study found that people make fewer emotional demands on men and that men are less likely to experience “social assaults” or “abusive treatment”—in others words, customers are less likely to subject men to childish temper tantrums. Another study found that college students expect female instructors to smile and engage in more interpersonal contact with students and rated them more poorly if they didn’t. Meanwhile, smiling didn’t improve the men’s scores, and regardless of how friendly they were, they were still consistently rated as more effective teachers than the women. These findings are all consistent with the theory of the “status shield”: men’s status as stereotypically dominant and competent protects them from serving others’ emotional demands and having to perform emotions.

The news isn’t all bad: If men typically get paid more, more men entering female-dominated fields could raise wages for all. It’s worth noting that the wage gap is smaller in nursing than the national average across all occupations. So while the fact of women dominating a field doesn’t erase the wage gap, it does slightly shrink it.

But getting to the root of the problem will require us to redefine the roles we expect men and women to take. Men in female-dominant fields don’t necessarily have it easy, either. They report hostile behavior not from their colleagues but from others—there are male nurses who are made fun of by friends or who encounter patients who refuse to be seen by men, and there are male primary school teachers who are treated with suspicion by their students’ parents, based on the public’s misconception that pedophiles flock to schools.

They also report anxiety over the mismatch between stereotypical masculinity and working in a female-dominant field. Men in these fields downplay the feminine aspects of their jobs and play up the masculine ones. For instance, a male librarian reported to a researcher that he feels embarrassed telling people he’s a librarian; he keeps things intentionally vague by saying he works “at a university” where he “look[s] after business information,” because “that sounds more impressive.” His story and so many others make clear that prescribed gender roles benefit no one and that workers could be so much more productive without them.