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The Glass Escalator: Male Leaders In Female Dominated Fields


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While women and other minorities struggle with the “glass ceiling”, men are reaching the top while riding the “glass escalator”.



In most leadership roles, men in "pink collar" jobs, such as nurses, professors, and academic directors, hold the majority of the positions, why?  Well, you’ve heard of the “glass ceiling”, it’s time you heard about the “glass escalator”.


Way back in 1992 - yes, it’s been that long - sociologist Christine Williams looked into men’s underrepresentation in female-dominated industries and the disadvantages they could face in regard to wages, promotions, workplace culture, and interactions with clients. What she found out though, was that they experienced quite the opposite; these men were rising quicker to upper levels of leadership than their female coworkers. 


Thus, the term “glass escalator” is coined. The metaphor describes the structural advantages men possess in traditionally female occupations such as nursing and teaching, among others, due to the male need to overcompensate for the gendered segregation and mocking of their masculinity - a little bit too patriarchal system there, right? For example, even though males represent 10% of the nursing workforce as of 2021, you can see that most hospital administrators are men.  


Furthermore, it does not bode well for women that more men are moving into “pink collar” fields, as Caren Goldberg, Ph.D., assistant professor of management at American University’s Kogod School of Business, points out in an interview with Forbes Magazine. Even though “having a greater proportion of men does raise salaries,” it doesn’t really mean that the salaries being raised are women’s. Just to state a fact; for every dollar that a male nurse makes, a female nurse earns 95 cents.


This inequality is also due to the typical stereotype that men are better leaders, and don’t have the same “career interruptions” that women face, such as having a child. Because, of course, women are the only ones who have children.


So, while women are struggling with the glass ceiling that keeps them from rising to senior-level management positions even in female-dominated professions, men are gliding to the top with no other problems than a few ill-tasted jokes about their sexual preferences.


Nonetheless, the perk of the glass escalator isn’t available to all men who do “pink collar work”, men of color don’t get the same club benefits that the other boys do. Studies have found that, even though there are fewer white men in these industries, they are still much more protected than their colleagues of color. Author Adia Harvey Wingfield pointed out it in her paper Racializing the Glass Escalator, where she examines that although the research on this has included men of color, it hasn’t shed much light on how racial dynamics influence the phenomenon.


In a similar fashion, only 9% of nurses are part of the LGBTQ+ community. So, it doesn’t take much more tidbits of information to wonder what women of color, people from the LGBTQ+ community (or both) go through when white men enter fields that are minority-dominated and seem to rise above the ranks quite smoothly and quickly. 


In 2013, Williams published another paper explaining why the Glass Escalator needs to be retired. As she claims, conditions such as traditional work spaces, stable employment, and public institutions have changed dramatically in the neoliberal era since she coined the term 20 years ago. Moreover, she recognized that she failed to consider the impact of race, class, and sexuality in determining who rides the glass escalator. 


However, the mere acknowledgment is not enough, and very little has been said about the intersection of these factors in the analysis of the glass escalator. Furthermore, it can be noted is that what is usually perceived as progress, is actually a smokescreen for something worse, which would be throwing women and people of color into leadership positions coincidentally at a time when things are going downhill.


To further explain, this phenomenon is also known as the “glass cliff”, which is a metaphor for when a company board chooses a “tokenized” minority leader in the middle of a difficult time for the organization, without giving the support needed for this transition to be successful. This is usually an attempt to be more “inclusive” and “moving with the times”, but it fails to create real equality when the outcome is oftentimes a total fiasco.


Ultimately, the overall “glass phenomenon” should be reflected upon more, where minorities aren’t overlooked in studies of structural inequity or whenever a leadership position is in search of new candidates. The work environment, culture, and social scene have changed throughout the years, so it is only fair that more equal opportunities be put in place for leadership to be in the hands of qualified and prepared people.

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