Future Tense

The Future of Work May Be Even More Sexist

A male nurse wearing goggles and a face mask
NgKhanhVuKhoa/iStock/Getty Images Plus

As technology and automation rapidly remake a very different future of work, some economists predict that women will benefit the most from the coming disruptions. Although women have no doubt been hardest hit by the COVID-19 economy, in the coming years, women-dominated caring jobs—like nursing, teaching, and providing child and elder care—that aren’t easily replaced by machines will be among the fastest-growing occupations and thus more likely to be “future-proof.”

It’s not that many women’s jobs won’t be automated away. They will. Just as men-dominated mechanical and machine operating jobs are predicted to disappear, so too are women-dominated administrative and clerical jobs. But most of these future-of-work predictions assume women will continue to dominate the care economy. And all because men aren’t expected to care.

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So even as women are the focus of a host of training programs and investment to help them break into the growing and high-paying men-dominated fields of science and technology, there is little effort on the flip side to draw men to the growing but decidedly lower-paid women-dominated jobs of caring, or to transform care work into good jobs that would pay any worker well.

Already, occupations in the United States are deeply segregated by gender. About 40 percent of employed women work in women-dominated occupations and 48 percent of men work in men-dominated jobs. Nearly four decades after the Supreme Court struck down bans that excluded men from nursing school, men make up only 12 percent of registered nurses, about as much as the percent of women who work in mining. That segregation is a big part of what contributes to the persistent gender wage gap, as men-dominated professions pay so much more than do women-dominated ones. And while some care economy jobs like nurse practitioners may offer good wages, child care workers and home health aides often teeter on the brink of poverty.

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Which leads to the question: Will the deeply ingrained traditional gender norm that care work is “women’s work”—an extension of the “labor of love” provided for free in the home—mean that care work will continue to be undervalued and segregated in the future, even as demand for it grows, as well as bar men from pursuing these certain jobs in an uncertain future?

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What would happen if men did care?

That’s what we asked men who are professional caregivers for a new report we released Thursday. (We work for New America’s Better Life Lab; New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.) In a national survey and in-depth focus group discussion, men who are nurses, home health aides, kindergarten teachers, and child care workers overwhelmingly said they are proud of the work they do and find it meaningful and challenging. Care work is good work, the men said, and they want to encourage more men to do it. And the only way that’s going to happen is for care jobs to become better jobs.

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Contrary to conventional wisdom, the majority of men working as professional caregivers said they actively sought a job in a caring profession and considered it a career with opportunities for growth and advancement; it was not a fallback of job of last resort. “I feel like I’m making a difference in people’s lives,” said Joshua, a surgical nurse in Nebraska. The men described the responsibility they face making life-and-death decisions, caring for people in their most devastating moments, or being present at the most joyous—when a child takes a first step, a medical treatment goes well, or a young mind flashes with new understanding.

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What’s more, caregiving men, especially those in nursing, said that, far from the stereotype of just emptying bedpans, their work requires a complex mix of high-level cognitive skills and human warmth. To succeed in their jobs, the men said, requires attention to detail, fast thinking, and the ability to multitask, but also, “you have to have a heart and soul,” as Louisiana ICU nurse Lucas said. The child care workers and educators, in particular, emphasized traits of human warmth, like patience and a desire to help others, as essential to do their jobs well, traits long assumed that either only women have or are simply better at.

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That gender stigma, while perhaps not as intense as it was decades ago, is still something many men in care face. “I hate the term murse,” said one. The men in early care and education said they often faced suspicion and mistrust from fearful parents. And most agreed that society valued care work but only “to a certain point,” and argued that only when care jobs pay well and become better jobs would caregivers “get the respect they deserve.”

There is no question that society values men and the work they do more than the work of women. Already the few men in nursing are often paid more than their women counterparts—something the men in our focus groups acknowledged with chagrin. And economists have tracked how wages drop as women take over formerly men-dominated jobs. People may have forgotten, but men have always cared. At one time, teaching was a high-paying profession for men. And for centuries, nursing was a job for monks and knights. Two of the four patron saints of nursing are men: St. Camillus de Lellis, with the red cross on his robes that have come to signify the universal symbol of medical healing, and St. John of God. That only changed with Florence Nightingale, who insisted only women should nurse. While Nightingale created a pathway to employment for many women for the first time, her act also feminized the profession and cemented both lower wages and the notion that nurses were subservient to, rather than partners with, doctors. But if the presence of women depresses wages, could the reverse also be true? Would an influx of men into care work be what it takes to raise the value of it for all workers?

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Already, efforts are underway to transform care economy jobs. The Biden administration is proposing a major investment in child care infrastructure and promises to give early educators and child care workers “a raise and stronger benefits, treating them as the professionals they are.” Some child care and health care workers are seeking to unionize to push for better pay. The state of Washington has figured out how to make home health jobs good jobs. And organizations like the American Association for Men in Nursing are working to draw more men into the care sector.*

Mike Ward, the AAMN vice president and an offshore oil rig worker–turned–acute care nurse practitioner in Texas, has been working on the organization’s “Future RN” effort to counteract persistent gender bias and attract more men to nursing. Not only because more men would then be assured of good, “future-proof” jobs that are in high demand, Ward said, but because nurses and professional caregivers should look like the populations they care for. “More and more women are becoming physicians, which is great,” Ward said. “We feel the nursing community should mirror the communities we serve.”

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To do that, they’re starting early, reaching out to boys in elementary and middle school. “Nursing was never presented as an option to me by my high school guidance counselor,” Ward said. “We’re trying to change that—opening the minds of young men and boys to a great profession that most men have probably not considered and is going to be around for a long time.”

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And while a 2009 effort of some nursing schools took on a highly gendered and decidedly macho flavor—with a campaign demanding, “Are You Man Enough to Be a Nurse?”—Ward said AAMN’s effort is all about men in nursing dispelling gendered stereotypes by sharing their everyday experiences. One study found that the number of male high school students who said they’d consider nursing as a career choice increased more than threefold when the same tasks were described with the more gender-neutral title of “registered clinician.”

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Ward uses his own story in recruitment efforts. He works a seven-day-on, seven-day-off schedule, which enables him to be engaged in the lives of his at-home wife and five children and active in martial arts, reading, and other pursuits. “I have a job that is just so fulfilling and tremendous work-life balance,” Ward said. “For all my friends who thought it was kind of weird that I went into nursing, and even some of my family that didn’t understand, nobody’s laughing now.”

For Ramon Kapoor, a nurse practitioner in New York, the crucible of COVID-19 may be what helps finally dispel gendered stereotypes about men in care. “The need has been so great that there’s been no place for judgment because of your gender,” Kapoor said. “People are finally seeing what nurses actually do, not what they think they do.” And what nurses like Kapoor have been doing is risking their own lives going into ICU rooms to assess, treat, and care for critically ill and dying COVID-19 patients, while doctors watch from screens or through glass partitions. (Nurses make up roughly 1 in 3 of the more than 3,000 health care workers who had died as a result of COVID as of December.)

Similarly, the closures of so many schools and child care centers because of the pandemic has brought into sharp focus just how critical the care work is of early educators and teachers, of any gender, to keep businesses open, families supported, and the economy humming, as well as educate the next generation.

Kapoor, Ward, and the professional caregiving men we spoke to in our focus group like to say that caring is human, not the province of women alone. To make that a reality in the future of work, however, will require not only celebrating girls who code, but boys who care. And ensuring that either one will have not only meaningful and satisfying work, but jobs that enable them to live meaningful and satisfying lives.

Correction, Feb. 23, 2021: This article originally misidentified the American Association for Men in Nursing as the American Association of Men in Nursing.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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