(Much of the material for this post comes from David J. Maume Jr.’s 1999 work “Glass Ceilings and Glass Escalators,” because that’s the one in my Work Organization textbook. More recent citations gratefully accepted.)
According to analysis of the PSID (Panel Study of Income Dynamics), a longitudinal study of a representative sample of American families, between 1989 and 1999, 44% of white men and 17% of black men are promoted out of primarily female occupations into managerial positions. However, only 15% of white women and 7% of black women are promoted out of these positions.
Initially, this sounds like a good thing for men. After all, promotions are cool, right? However, the “glass escalator,” as it is known, has its roots in anti-male sexism.
According to a groundbreaking 1992 study by Christine L. Williams, “The glass escalator: hidden advantages for men in the ‘female’ professions,” men in typically female professions (she interviewed nurses, teachers, librarians and social workers) are viewed as “deviant.” In particular, the clients of schools, hospitals and social work agencies tend to prefer women to equally qualified men. Supervisors respond to this by promoting men out of these occupations.
In general, women are assumed to be better at nurturing tasks and men are assumed to be better at instrumental tasks such as delegation, planning and organization. This is a classic case of a social narrative that is sexist against both genders: not only does it cast doubt on women’s ability to lead, but also on men’s ability to care.
A man is fully capable of sponge-bathing an elderly person or comforting a woman dying in a hospice; he is fully capable of teaching a child to read or mentoring a troubled teenager. To suggest otherwise is to deny men their full humanity: after all, humans evolved as group animals. We evolved to care about and take care of each other, and to arbitrarily cut off half of humanity from this heritage is the height of stupidity.
In addition, it is generally assumed, according to Williams’s research, that a female nurse wants to make a living out of caring for patients, while a male nurse is assumed to want career success. This ties in to the image of men as “success object,” the way women are “sex objects”: in the same way that our culture presents the highest goal of women as looking conventionally attractive, it presents the highest goal of men as being conventionally successful (i.e. a professional in a high-earning occupation). A man who doesn’t want to be a success object is as silly as a woman who doesn’t want to be a sex object. (More on this in an exciting upcoming post!)
In fact, the expectation that men will go for managerial roles represents one of the largest flaws with the “glass escalator.” Most people who choose caring careers such as social work or teaching choose them because they want to help people, not shuffle papers in an office. You can shuffle papers in an office for much better pay at Goldman Sachs. Essentially, men are being systematically driven out of the professions they actually want to do and are good at– the professions they chose— because of outdated and ridiculous gender expectations that they cannot be caretakers and must be driven by success over all.
To not be given the chance to choose emotional satisfaction with your work over monetary reward is exactly the same as to not be given the chance to choose monetary reward over emotional satisfaction with your work. It’s the same situation, as reflected in a broken mirror.
It is important not to underestimate other factors not covered in Williams’s research: for instance, men may bond with their male supervisors more than their female coworkers, possibly by sharing interest in so-called “male bonding” activities. (It would be interesting to see a sociological study of whether men who are interested in, say, knitting get promoted as much as men who are interested in golf.) However, the statements she’s collected in her research provide a clear example of how sexism hurts men too– even in situations in which it may seem to be beneficial.