Men in “Feminine” Fields: The Glass Escalator Theory

What is the Glass Escalator Theory and what are its causes and implications?

There has been much news coverage concerning the concept of the “glass ceiling,” which describes the transparent promotion barrier facing minority ‒ particularly women ‒ workers. But a new, adjacent theory is starting to take hold. It’s called the “glass escalator” theory and it applies to men in traditionally “feminine” fields, such as nursing and elementary school education. In these fields men are in the minority.

The theory describes the state of occupational segregation between the sexes from the rare perspective where men are the minority within the field. It focuses on fields where men are statistically under-represented. Often, it focuses on four predominantly female led occupations: librarianship, social work, primary school teachers and nurses. To further explore the causes and implications of the glass escalator theory, two questions are crucial:

1. Why do so few men enter these fields, especially since such fields have low barriers to entry?

2. If men are the minorities in these fields, why are they still more likely to be placed quickly into upper administrative roles?

In answering the first question, part of men’s lack of presence can be attributed to the differing social expectations for the genders. For example, at a young age boys and girls might be directed to pursue different fields and thus take on different jobs when they grow up.

Secondly, since workers in these four particular fields usually earn lower salaries, there is not much incentive to enter these occupations. Thus, this discrepancy in gender representation in these fields might not only be harmful to balance within the workplace, but also be a catalyst for shortages of applicants entering these fields.

The greater question of the “glass escalator phenomenon” arises when one attempts to work out why men in these fields, despite being the minorities, still receive promotions and salary increases faster than women. For example, teaching below university level is predominantly female, but most headmasters are men. Librarianship is considered a traditionally feminine field, but most director positions are usually held by males. In nursing, most applicants are women, but men will statistically be promoted to board positions faster.

While there is continuous progress made on incorporating diverse backgrounds into these fields, there does appear to be a tendency to favour men. According to a study produced by University of Texas Professor Christine L. Williams, it may partially be due to socialisation patterns taking hold in the economic workforce. According to her extensive interviews, women entering male-dominated fields would actively try to downplay their gender, in order to instead focus on their merits. These women are afraid of stigmatized biases working against them. However, men in female-dominated fields would view their gender as an asset and thus could use it to their advantage.

Importantly, another factor that comes into play in the promotion process is the widely used practice of self-grading. Initially used to help employees to self-reflect, this practice also aids employers to gauge “potential growth” for those they are considering for promotion. Although originally designed in good spirit, self-grading is another cause for men being promoted faster. Research shows that women are statistically more likely to understate their performance levels and confidence in comparison to men.

If two candidates have the same performance level on paper, but one says in the self-reflection that he or she believes they are high-performing and has more to give to the company, the employer would be incentivised to promote this candidate, who is more likely to be a man than a woman.

The lower wages offered by these jobs as well as the stereotype that they are traditionally “feminine jobs” causes the shortages of workers in these fields. Whether the glass escalator phenomenon is more driven by social or technical factors, the reality is that it does exist and demands greater recognition.

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