Gender Stratification in the Workplace

The Experience of Gender in Gender-Biased Professions

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Ruth Simpson interviewed 40 males working in the female-dominated professions of primary school teachers, flight attendants, nursing, and librarians to better understand their experiences. Of those interviewed, only two found their career choice unsatisfactory and had plans to leave (356). The rest were glad they chose or stumbled upon their current career.

Simpson contrasted the experiences of male flight attendants, nurses, librarians, and primary school teachers with the theory that minority workers are generally penalized by increased performance expectations, isolation, and limited opportunities for promotion (352). Researchers have shown that women in a male-dominated workplace suffer from what has been called ‘token’ status. A token female employee’s high visibility often increases the pressure to perform at levels above their male peers, their isolation as male employees exaggerate the differences between men and women, and stereotyping which tends to limit opportunities for advancement.

By contrast, men seem to benefit on several levels by choosing a career in a female-dominated workplace (Simpson 356-364). Simpson found four main effects that were experienced by her interviewees and these were: (1) career effect, (2) assumed authority effect, (3), special consideration effect, and (4) zone of comfort effect. The career effect experience was being welcomed into the profession and fast-tracked into management. Men were also given more authority than their female peers, experienced relaxed workplace rules, and tended to feel more comfortable working around women than men.

A Structural Functional Analysis

According to structural functionalism people are not unique individuals per se, but individuals who are defined in significant ways by the roles they have been assigned in society. These roles in turn determine the nature of their social interactions, both good and bad. When Simpson asked the male interviewees whether they experienced any difficulties given the gender bias associated with their chosen professions, several responded in the affirmative (359-362). In contrast to women though, these difficulties were primarily relegated to interactions with friends and family members. The strategies used to minimize friction with family and friends included relabeling their job to minimize feminine associations, emphasizing more ‘masculine’ aspects of the job, and creating distance, both imaginary and real, between their job duties and those performed by their female coworkers. For example, male nurses often moved laterally into specialized medical positions, thereby providing some distance with the more feminine general nursing population. Simpson viewed these strategies as mechanisms for preserving their masculine identity.

Such strategies would be consistent with structural functionalism, because these men, despite their willingness to work in a female-dominated profession, must still negotiate their roles as men within the social groups and institutions they belong to. The primary social stress for these men comes not from the work environment, but from the need to maintain a masculine role in their personal and professional lives. By comparison, women working in a male-dominated profession experience the most stress from the male-dominated work environment. As Simpson points out, women working in male-dominated professions are often held to a higher standard, isolated, marginalized, and exposed to sexual harassment (352).

A Social Conflict Analysis

Conflict theory proposes that all people are in constant conflict with each other, between groups, and with institutions over limited resources. There is a large body of research showing that women experience significant conflict when they enter a male-dominated profession (Simpson 352). For example, there could be gender-based hiring preferences which protect male employees, preferential promotion of males, and drastically different salaries between males and females that give men a significant economic advantage. The female stereotyping, isolation, and sexual harassment would also be consistent with a goal of preventing women from succeeding in a male-dominated professions.

Based on Simpson’s findings, men find that they are welcomed into the four female-dominated professions, are expected to be fast-tracked into management, tend to be given more authority than their female peers, and experience a more relaxed set of workplace rules (356-364). If anything, men working in female-dominated professions tend to benefit economically from their career choice, which contradicts the main premise of social conflict theory.

The primary source of conflict for these men comes from their family and friends who are less understanding about their career choice. From a social conflict theory perspective, maybe the personal conflicts that arise from career choice are perceived by some family members and friends as a back-handed threat to male-dominated professions. For example, working in a ‘female’ profession may be viewed as weakening both sides of the gender barrier that has historically discouraged women from working in ‘male’ professions.

A Symbolic Interaction Analysis

Symbolic interactionism proposes that social interactions are determined to a significant extent by the labels society assigns to an individual. Simpson mentions in her introduction that women working in male-dominated professions are often stereotyped, which tends to limit their ability to receive performance-based raises or promotions (352). Some of the labels Simpson mentions are mother, pet, iron maiden, and seductress. For women caught in this ‘role trap’, survival seems to depend on conforming to the stereotype.

Simpson’s research study into the experiences of men working in female-dominated professions is essentially an investigation into what impact labels have. Flight attendant, nurse, school teacher, and librarian are all labels that tend to confer feminine attributes in society. As discussed above, men try to negotiate the impact these feminine labels have on their masculine identity through several strategies, including relabeling, emphasizing the masculine aspects, and distancing from the feminine (359-362).

However, several interviewees commented that they are no stranger to workplace-assigned stereotypes either. Men working in a female-dominated profession may be assigned the role of ‘son’ or ‘father’ by female coworkers or supervisors. In contrast to women though, men seem to have more freedom to redefine themselves within their chosen profession and shrug off the limitations they might otherwise experience. A lateral move from the general nursing population into a medical specialty would be one example Simpson provides. In addition, the focus for men in female-dominated professions, according to Simpson, is not women coworkers or supervisors, but the labels they fear will be given to them by the men in the social groups they inhabit and the resulting impact on their masculine identity.


Both men and women working in female- and male-dominated professions, respectively, struggle to maintain their individuality and gender roles. However, the stress or conflict women experience tends to come primarily from the workplace, while the stress or conflict that men experience tends to originates from their male family members and friends. While structure functionalism and symbolic interactionism seem to provide a relevant theoretical framework for understanding the experiences of gendered employees, the relevance of social conflict theory seems to be limited to situations where women work in male-dominated professions.

Works Cited

Simpson, Ruth. “Masculinity at Work: The Experiences of Men in Female Dominated Occupations.” Work, Employment, and Society 18.2 (2004): 349-368. Print.