When it comes to women in traditionally male jobs or men in traditionally female jobs there’s all kinds of talk about how we have made so much progress and we are still improving. In many ways, this is true. The workplace paradigm is in the visible process of shifting from “men taking care of the world and women taking care of the men,” to women and men taking care of each other and the world.
Between 1983 and 2002, women police detectives and supervisors, women millwrights, women civil engineers, women automobile mechanics, women airplane pilots and navigators, and women firefighters all saw increases in the one hundred and three hundred percent ranges. Seems promising, right?
Technically, yes. Progress has been made in that women now feel they have the option of going into these fields where before it was unheard of. But just because there has been an increase of women in these jobs doesn’t necessarily mean there are a lot of women, or that working conditions for these women are ideal. Even as the number of women in traditionally male jobs and the number of men in traditional female jobs increases, the way we view them as men and women remains the same, therefore, conflicts are bound to persist.
If you think about the origins of gender discrimination in the workplace, and the advent of women taking “traditional” jobs outside the home, you will begin to see a pattern. Gender discrimination is not born simply of a belief that women are less intelligent or capable than men, but that they are inherently better at different things than men are.
The stereotype that women are inherently communicative, nurturing, and compassionate and thus better able to carry out jobs of service and teaching, is directly related to the careers that are predominantly female: grade school teachers, nurses, waitresses, maids, hairdressers, secretaries, dental hygienists, and retail clerks. The stereotype that men are inherently strong leaders, more aggressive, protective, organizational, analytical, mathematically minded, spatial, and rational, is directly related to the careers we see men dominating: engineering, accounting, law enforcement, emergency services, sports media, politics, medicine, and construction, to name a few.
The expectation that sex alone is an indicator of certain traits and abilities is still prevalent, however much we believe in a post-sexist society, because even as we are evolving these misguided beliefs about gender roles and allowing careers for men and women to overlap, deep-seated understandings of femininity and masculinity continue to penetrate our attitudes and actions. The perfect example of this is the “glass ceiling” for women and the “glass escalator” for men.
The “glass ceiling,” as you’ve probably heard about, is a phenomenon where women in traditionally male jobs often reach a point where they can no longer get promotions or pay raises, regardless of competency or experience. The “glass escalator,” as you may not have heard about, is a contrasting phenomenon where men in traditionally female jobs often move quickly through the ranks to become supervisors and managers ahead of their female co-workers, regardless of competency or experience.
These phenomenons are the direct result of trust for men and lack of trust for women due to the traits we fundamentally associate with femininity and masculinity: feminine means physically delicate, emotionally unstable, gentle, and passive; masculine means aggressive, assertive, insensitive, decisive, and emotionless. Men and women are automatically sidled with these respective stereotypes by default until proven otherwise, and women who succeed in male dominated careers have usually done so by successfully shedding their most feminine characteristics on the job.
Even though men and women can make choices about their presentation and take actions that challenge the assumptions and overcome them, stereotypes can often become inadvertently reinforced by one tiny slip-up. That is why women in traditionally male jobs are judged more harshly when they make a mistake, and men in traditionally female jobs are forgiven more easily—because we assume that the woman succumbed to her natural inclinations while the man just had a momentary lapse from the norm.
Lois Frankel, PhD., writes in her book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office:
Women bring a unique set of behaviors to the workplace that are needed, especially in today’s climate. Our tendencies to collaborate rather than compete, listen more than talk, and use relationships rather than muscle to influence are the very same behaviors I coach men to acquire. But it’s all about balance. Just as men can overuse their stereotypical characteristics, so can women.
Though I hesitate to blame women for their own misfortune in the workplace, it is true that the stereotypes are ingrained in women and men about themselves just as much as they are about the opposite sex. These beliefs about ourselves and what the world expects from us that are fostered from such a young age often have as much influence on what we do as on how other people view us, which only exacerbates the problem.
Inevitably with our changing society, growing numbers will bridge the gender gap in many careers, but I firmly believe that equal treatment within those careers will only come with the dissolution of stereotypes about masculinity and femininity, both within ourselves and about others. What do you think? Have you or someone you know ever experienced the “glass ceiling” or the “glass escalator?”