“I didn’t know men could be doctors,” my son said to me when he was about six years old. We were driving home from a visit to the pediatrician. I was perplexed. But then I realized that the doctor we had just seen was the first male doctor he had encountered.
I assured him that men could actually be doctors. But I added cautiously, “and nurses, of course.” His observation was a powerful reminder of the feminist mantra, “You have to see it to be it.” If a specific activity, including a job, than for people of the opposite sex viewed, it is unlikely to show up in your own endeavors.
My son’s elementary school had an all-female staff, so it took a while to convince him that men could be teachers too. Role models are important. As Gloria Steinem said in 1995, “The way we become split into our misconceptions of male and female is what we see as children.”
Tremendous strides have been made in recent decades in breaking the gender stereotypes associated with many traditionally male professions, including science, medicine, engineering, law, and even the military. When the original Perry Mason series aired in 1966, only 4 percent of law students were women. At the time of HBO’s new release in summer 2020, there were just as many women studying law as men. Terms like “lawyer” and “doctor” sound antiquated.
Similar trends can also be observed in other formerly male-dominated areas. In 1980, women accounted for just 13% of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) jobs; the proportion has now more than doubled to 27%. There is definitely more to do here. In the tech world, progress has been particularly slow. But in general, what Harvard’s Claudia Goldin calls the “auras of gender” in most male-dominated professions has declined.
But the same is not true in the other direction. Traditionally female professions, particularly in what I call HEAL fields — in health, education, administration, and literacy — have become even more “pink collared,” if anything. Only 26% of HEAL jobs are held by men, down from 35% in 1980. The desegregation of the labor market has been almost entirely one-sided. Women do “man’s jobs”. Men don’t do “women’s jobs”.
In some professions, the decline in the proportion of men is dramatic. The proportion of men in psychology, for example, has fallen from 39% to 29% in the last ten years. And the trend will continue. Among psychologists under the age of 30, the proportion of men is just 5%. Less than a fifth of social workers are men (18%), down from half that in 1980. The only profession where the proportion of nurses has increased, albeit painfully slowly, is nursing, of which 13% are now male.
Men make up only 24% of K-12 teachers, down from 33% in the early 1980s. Only one in ten primary school teachers is male. In early education, men are practically invisible. It should be a source of national disgrace that only 3% of preschool and kindergarten teachers are men. There are twice as many women flying US military aircraft as men teaching kindergartens (as a percentage of the occupation).
There are three urgent reasons to attract more men to HEAL. First, given the decline in traditional male occupations in these sectors, men need to look for jobs. Worker jobs are disappearing. There will also be more STEM jobs – but these are much smaller jobs. STEM accounts for only about 7% of all jobs compared to 23% in HEAL. For every STEM job created through 2030, there are three new jobs in HEAL. The job market is feminizing faster than men.
It’s true that some HEAL jobs don’t pay that well, while most STEM jobs do. Medical assistants, for example, make around $38,000 a year. But many classic male jobs are also not highly paid: construction workers, bus and taxi drivers earn about as much as medical assistants. And there are also many HEAL jobs that offer good pay and benefits, including Registered Nurse ($100,000), Medical and Health Services Manager ($71,000), Education and Childcare Administrator ($70,000), and Occupational Therapist ($72,000).
The second reason to attract more men to HEAL is to address labor shortages in critical occupations. Almost half of all registered nurses are now over 50 years old. That means many are likely to retire in the next 15 years, especially as the workload increases. And the number of nurses needed is expected to increase by about 400,000 by 2030. In September 2021, the American Nursing Association called on the federal government to declare a “national nurse workforce crisis.”
Teaching faces similar challenges, particularly in certain cities and states. Between 2000 and 2018, teacher enrollment rates fell by more than a third, and the decline was more pronounced for men than for women. The pandemic made things worse. In some places, drastic measures are being taken. New Mexico has drafted National Guard soldiers as substitute teachers; a Minneapolis school district asked for volunteer parents to obtain a substitute teacher’s license; and Polk County, Fla., flew in sixty teachers from eight countries, all on J-1 visas. Gov. Ron DeSantis allows veterans without college degrees to teach.
But these are short-term solutions at best. A massive recruitment drive for teachers is needed, including among men. We face labor shortages in two of the largest and most important sectors of our economy – healthcare and education. But we try to solve them with only half the workforce.
The third argument for men in HEAL is to provide better service to boys and men. Many would prefer to be groomed by a man, especially in certain situations. Consider the case of a man who needs help using the toilet in a hospital or nursing home, or the case of a middle-aged man who needs a therapist to help with his pornography addiction, or the fatherless teenager who needs help from a psychologist with his Substance requires abuse. Either way, they may prefer a male provider. At least it should be an option.
It is not ideal when most substance abuse counselors are women (76%) when most substance abusers are men (67%), or that most special education teachers are women (84%) when most students referred to special education are women are male (64%). I’m not saying that we need to strive for perfect gender parity in these professions. However, it is reasonable to aim for a closer match between users and providers.
Getting more men into HEAL jobs would be good for the men, good for the jobs, and good for the clients—a win-win-win situation.
But how? By learning the lessons of the successful movement to bring more women into STEM careers. As a society, we recognize the need to get more women into STEM careers and have invested accordingly. Now the same goes for men and HEAL. I propose a national investment of at least $1 billion over the next decade in service of this goal.
We need new scholarships for young men who choose HEAL subjects in college like the existing scholarships for women who study STEM. This should include getting more men into vocational training courses, for example in health administration. We need an aggressive recruitment program to attract more male educators in HEAL subjects: currently only 6% of nursing professors are male. We need subsidies for HEAL employers to diversify their workforce by hiring more men. Higher wages would also help. K-12 teachers haven’t seen a pay rise this century.
Above all, we need a culture change so that certain professions are no longer considered no-go zones for men. That means addressing the stigma many men face who choose these roles as effeminate or professional failures. Women had to break down gender stereotypes in order to enter male jobs; Men will need to do the same for female-dominated HEAL jobs.
In short, we need a national effort. As I have argued here, with the decline of many traditionally male-dominated jobs, getting more men into HEAL jobs is important to their own economic prospects. But it would also be good for society. Men can HEAL.
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