I give a lot of talks to educators around the country and am always fascinated by the gender imbalance. In a room full of 2,000 educators, I have to look closely to spot the men in the crowd. It's so striking to me, and yet no one seems to be talking about it. Why doesn't anyone care about this gender imbalance?

After all, modern society seems to place a great deal of value on gender equality in occupational opportunities, at least when it comes to women. In recent years, great strides have been made to remove barriers to women's advancement and representation in science, technology, engineering, and math careers (STEM), as well as in leadership positions. For instance, the National Science Foundation has invested 270 million dollars since 2001 to multiple initiatives supporting women in the sciences, and companies invest millions of dollars to support female leaders through programs such as the "10,000 Women" initiative by Goldman Sachs, which provides women entrepreneurs around the world with a business and management education, mentoring and networking, and access to funding.

In stark contrast, men's striking underrepresentation in healthcare, early education, and domestic roles (HEED) has not increased, and even slightly decreased, between 1993 and 2013. Men remain particularly underrepresented in fields such as nursing (10%) and elementary education (14%), yet researchers, policy makers, and the general public seem far less concerned in efforts to promote greater gender balance in these careers.

In a new study, social psychologist Katharina Block and her colleagues attempted to better understand why people might not prioritize gender equality in female-dominated careers relative to male-dominated careers. They found that people think very differently about gender imbalances in a career depending on whether the imbalance concerns an underrepresentation of women or an underrepresentation of men.

Across four studies, people consistently indicated greater support for social action to correct the gender imbalance in male-dominated as compared to female-dominated fields. This asymmetry in support for change was found both in people's explicit reports for social action as well as on a budget allocation task. In particular, the researchers found that people were willing to give $9 million more in funding to promote gender balance in male-dominated than in female-dominated fields.

Why such an asymmetry? Block and colleagues examined the "lay theories" that people hold about the underlying reasons for gender disparities in each field. They found that people perceived internal factors (e.g., lack of motivation, lack of ability) to be the main barrier to men's entry into female-dominated fields, whereas external factors (e.g., discrimination, stereotyping) were seen as a larger factor in women's underrepresentation in male-dominated careers. It was precisely this tendency to see internal factors as the main barrier to men's entry into female-dominated fields that explained why people were less likely to support social change when it came to the underrepresentation of males in female-dominated fields.

Also, consistent with a "status value" perspective proposed by Alyssa Croft and colleagues, the occupations in which men are extremely underrepresented (nursing, elementary education) were viewed as lower in status, and therefore less deserving of attention and social action towards change than STEM fields (e.g., computer programming, electrical engineering) where women are extremely underrepresented.

Critically, the researchers were able to rule out the possibility that these findings were simply explained by cultural beliefs (e.g., traditional gender role attitudes or political conservatism), demographic variables, or differential salary opportunities. On average, both men and women were biased in their perception of different gender imbalances based on gender representation of the fields even after controlling for the earning potential of the fields.

Why is any of this important?


Of course, not all social inequalities are considered a problem, nor should they all be considered a problem. However, these findings may have importance considering that group differences that are attributed more to external factors (e.g., discrimination, stereotyping) than internal factors (low motivation or low ability) tend to receive more support for change, whereas when the underlying cause of a group difference is perceived to be due primarily to internal factors, people tend to be more satisfied with the existence of the group difference and are more likely to justify existing inequalities.

Undoubtedly, there will be various ways that people will react to this. Some may look at this asymmetry as revealing the double standard we have for gender imbalances in different fields. They may point out how if someone (especially a man) argues that there may be internal reasons (motivation, lack of ability) why there is an underrepresentation of females in male-dominated fields, they can lose their job and be publicly shamed. However, when it comes to understanding why there is an underrepresentation of males in female-dominated fields, people seem to be perfectly content reporting that a lack of motivation and ability are the main cause of the gender imbalance, justifying their lack of support for increasing representation of males in such fields.

Those who are upset by this double standard may even go further and say that the truth is that external reasons are way overrated as a cause for the gender imbalance in any field, and that we should expect the gender imbalances we witness based on the average differences in values, temperament and ability of males vs. females.

Others are sure to react that the lay perceptions are actually correct, and that there is rightly more funding and resources directed toward correcting the gender imbalance in STEM fields than in HEED fields due to the historical oppression of women in these fields. These individuals may see nothing wrong whatsoever with the double standard, believing that the true state of affairs is that the underrepresentation of females in STEM fields really is primarily the result of external barriers whereas men don't truly have as many external barriers to entering female-dominated professions.

I think all of these extreme interpretations in themselves create a barrier to making important changes in society. The fact of the matter is that both internal and external factors play a role in women's and men's underrepresentation in careers dominated by the other gender. Research has found that personal values and discrimination are both related to women's lack of interest in STEM fields as well as men's lack of interest in HEED fields (see here, here, here, and here). Both internal and external factors matter for all genders!

Now, someone may counter that gender equality of outcomes in all fields (50/50) is an impossibility and will never happen even if we address all of the external factors because average differences in values (especially at the tails) will always create gender imbalances across fields.

Even if true (and the data is still out on this issue), I think a very good case can be made to allocating resources towards increasing equality of opportunity and a sense of belonging for both males and females who have the motivation and ability to enter fields in which their gender is strikingly underrepresented.

Toward Real Equality

“If we’re going to get to real equality between men and women, we have to focus less on women and more on elevating the value of care.”

- Anne-Marie Slaughter

Much ink has been spilled discussing the need for greater equality of opportunity for women in STEM fields, but what would be gained by a fight toward greater equality of opportunity for men in HEED fields?

Quite a bit, actually!

For one, it is a fact that there are major labor shortages in teaching and nursing. Having more men enter these fields could help to solve those shortages. The labor shortages could be improved by the active recruitment of men rather than the pervasive recruitment efforts targeted almost exclusively to women. Block suggests that seeing a greater proportion of male role models in such fields might enhance men's own internalization of caring values and interest in female-dominated fields. I think having more male role models in education could also be really important to young children who come from a single parent family, and who are primarily raised by a mother.

In general, I think we underestimate the importance of having caring adult male role models at school for all young boys. Author Peggy Orenstein conducted extensive interviews with more than 100 college and college-bound boys and young men of diverse backgrounds between the ages of 16 and 22. As she notes in an interview on Fresh Air,

"When I was doing the girl book, the kind of core issue with girls was that they were being cut off from their bodies and not understanding their bodies' response and their needs and their limits and their desires. With boys, it felt like they were being cut off from their hearts."

Orenstein notes that the boys she interviewed felt constrained by traditional notions of masculinity. Young boys would benefit from learning that the motivation to care for the welfare of others is not only linked to higher levels of life satisfaction and relationship satisfaction, and is actually an essential trait to becoming an "alpha male", but that a communal motivation also affords viable job opportunities in a tight labor market.

Men's increased participation in HEED fields would also likely benefit the overall gender equality of everyone in society. There is evidence that both women and girls benefit from seeing more men in non-traditional roles and occupations, enabling them to envision themselves in less traditional, complementary roles.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, increasing male representation in HEED fields would boost the social status of such fields. According to "status value theory", men's higher status in society means that men's roles and careers are given higher status than those of women. As a result, people value male-dominated domains more than female-dominated domains. One study found that when men were told that women score higher than men on an obscure trait called "surgency", men assumed this trait had less value to them personally. Increasing the social status of HEED fields would have the consequence of making these fields more attractive to men on average (men are much more driven by social status on average, and this becomes even more striking at the upper tail of ambition for social status).

Also-- and this is often underdiscussed-- I believe that increasing the social status of HEED fields would also reduce the discrimination many women face for entering HEED fields! It would empower women to enter caring professions and not feel like a failure or be shamed because they didn't "lean in" to men's professions. As Ruth Whippman notes, women are constantly confronted with messages to "Lean In!", "Adopt power positions!", "Walk tall!", "Stop apologizing"! "Be assertive!" In other words, women are empowered when they are more like men.

Here's the thing: Women shouldn't have to feel successful only if they enter male-dominated professions, and men shouldn't have to feel successful only if they succeed in male-dominated professions. There's great value in entering a HEED profession, and the more we can create social change to support anyone who wants to enter a field in which their gender is underrepresented, the better off we will all be.