- Implicitly designating a job as "female" can automatically diminish its authority.
- Gender lines are blurring, with positions in female-dominated fields increasingly being filled by males – and vice versa.
- Although job-related gender barriers are fading, research on nonbinary and transgender presences in work environments is lacking.
- This article is for business leaders and employees interested in gender makeup trends in the workforce.
An increasing number of occupations and sectors are diversifying in gender makeup, and the binary gender pay gap is decreasing. In 1980, employers paid women ages 25 to 34 about 33 cents less per hour. As of 2020, that number wasn't yet zero, but it was much smaller at 7 cents per hour.
Here are some interesting research findings and insights on work conditions and opportunities becoming increasingly independent of gender.
The arbitrariness of gender roles
While some gendered jobs are clearly rooted in stereotypes – like women as teachers and men in finance – the computing industry varies. In the early days of the industry, computer programming was considered on par with secretarial work, and programmers were typically women – known as "computer girls." As the field became more complex, demanding higher-skilled, better-paid workers, computing was "upgraded" to men's work. Today's male-dominated tech industry is the result.
Pop culture also plays a role in occupational stereotypes. Whitney Joy Smith, president of The Smith Investigation Agency, explained that real private detectives aren't like the fictional characters in entertainment. "As women in the industry, we hear shock from a multitude of clients when they ask to speak with an investigator while over the phone and we inform them they are speaking with one. This is an older stigma that we are looking to break. The days of a retired cop in a homburg hat are long behind us."
Is a job's credibility based on gender?
A 2017 study published in the American Sociological Review found that a profession that's considered a "male" job is perceived as more credible than a "woman's" job. The authors reached this conclusion by examining a relatively gender-neutral profession – business loan managers – for a Central American bank.
The study found that borrowers were more likely to comply with their payments when they were paired with male loan managers, while customers paired with female managers were more likely to miss payments.
Furthermore, when those initially paired with female managers during the study were switched to a different manager, noncompliance rates remained the same, regardless of the second manager's gender. Apparently, all it took was knowing one person of an occupation to assign it a gender, and when that gender was female, the occupation was taken less seriously. [Related: 7 Female Entrepreneurs Share Their Biggest Challenges]
There's no need to explain why this is harmful for women, but it also disincentivizes men from crossing gender barriers.
"Both have made strides of improvement in the past few decades, but likely women in male-dominated industries have made more significant strides than men in female-dominated industries," Smith said. Male-dominated occupations have traditionally had more respect, higher pay and more fringe benefits. Meanwhile, men in female-dominated professions face stigma without the financial incentives.
Did you know? The notion that women often aren't taken as seriously in workplaces is more than a casual observation: Scientific research has uncovered this trend.
There are two ways to solve this gender problem in the workplace: One is to stop viewing female-dominated professions as less credible; the other is to eliminate arbitrary gender designations. Luckily, we're seeing progress on the latter.
In a 2017 study, recruiting company CareerBuilder tracked the percentage of new jobs in gender-skewed occupations filled by members of the opposite sex. The findings were promising, with many male- and female-dominated fields becoming more balanced.
"Women and men are sidestepping preconceived notions and crossing over into roles that historically have been heavily populated by the opposite sex," said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer for CareerBuilder at the time of the study, in a statement.
The study found that nearly one-quarter of the new jobs in typically male-dominated occupations – such as CEOs, lawyers, surgeons, web developers, chemists and producers – were filled by women between 2009 and 2017. Overall, 23% of all jobs traditionally held by men were then held by female workers.
In 2021, Catalyst published research showing a similar progression. The study detailed the percentages of women in the workforce of certain sectors. The researchers discovered that women employed in industries consisting of two-thirds men increased by 5% between 2016 and 2018.
Catalyst organized its findings into two groups: occupations and industries. The data, taken from 2019, found that women comprise the following percentages of these occupations commonly seen as male roles.
- Civil engineers: 16%
- Computer programmers: 21.1%
- Construction managers: 8.4%
- Driving/sales workers and truck drivers: 7.8%
- Extraction workers, construction trades and first-line supervisors: 3.5%
- Mechanical engineers: 8.7%
- Software developers: 19.4%
Catalyst also collected data on the percentage of women in four male-dominated sectors.
- Construction: 10.9%
- Manufacturing: 29.5%
- Mining, oil, and gas extraction and quarrying: 14.5%
- Utilities and transportation: 24.1%
Key takeaway: Women make up a more substantial portion of "traditionally male" workforces today than you may think.
In certain roles usually filled by men or women, the opposite gender remains underemployed. The most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data on nursing indicate that 12% of registered nurses and 20.8% of elementary school teachers are men.
On a much larger scale, here are other traditionally male-dominated jobs where women now comprise much of the workforce.
- Lawyers: 37.6%
- Veterinarians: 63%
- Commercial and industrial designers: 17.9%
- Marketing managers: 53.6%
- Optometrists: 45.1%
- Management analysts: 50.2%
- Sales managers: 30.4%
- Producers, directors and other film-related roles: 34%
- Chemists: 38.9%
- Coaches and scouts: 47.6%
- Private detectives and investigators: 26.9%
- Emergency medical technicians and paramedics: 31.7%
- Financial analysts: 44%
- Team assemblers: 45.5%
- Computer systems analysts: 36%
- General and operations managers: 30.4%
- Surgeons: 22%
- Web developers: 25.3%
- Dentists (general): 35.9%
- Chief executives: 30%
Similarly, in these female-dominated jobs, men made the most gains:
- Cooks (institution and cafeteria): 70.3%
- Merchandise displayers and window trimmers: 40.9%
- Retail salespeople: 31%
- Pharmacists: 40.7%
- Education administrators: 37.2%
- Elementary school teachers (except special education): 20.8%
- Bartenders: 38.2%
- Insurance sales agents: 47.7%
- Market research analysts and marketing specialists: 41.9%
- Accountants and auditors: 40.9%
- Technical writers: 48.1%
- Interior designers: 22.4%
- Fitness trainers and aerobics instructors: 32.8%
- Telemarketers: 33.4%
- Training and development specialists: 32.6%
- Respiratory therapists: 36.9%
- Human resources managers: 23.2%
- Nurse anesthetists: 39.31%
- Physician assistants: 32.8%
- Public relations specialists: 28.9%
As men and women have branched out in their career aspirations, consumer demand is also a driving force of change.
On the rise of men in the wedding planning industry, "I think client expectations drove industry change to make it more gender-inclusive," said Lauren Grech, CEO of LLG Events. "Wedding planning is no longer just the bride and her mother or the mother of the groom … LGBTQ+ couples have changed the dynamic of the wedding industry to allow all couples to embrace planning together, because there are no longer gender-specific roles. It's very difficult to kick the habit of calling it a 'bridal industry.'"
There are also advantages in bringing new perspectives to tired fields. "Most people know that women are intuitive, creative, trusting … so they quickly understand that working with female investigators can have better success," Smith said. "It's especially beneficial as many people assume investigators are men, so women in the industry tend to go more unnoticed, which is very helpful while investigating a person of interest."
Supporting nonbinary or transgender employees
As you can see, career research traditionally pertains to male- or female-dominated roles. However, this framing excludes nonbinary and binary transgender personnel.
You can fill that gap by helping employees come out in the workplace if they so desire. The choice is theirs, not yours, but supporting employees who do come out can make your staff comfortable in any role.
Max Freedman and Chad Brooks contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.