America needs more men working in health care and education

“I didn’t know men could be doctors,” my son told me when he was about six. We were driving home from a pediatrician appointment. I was at a loss. But then I realized that the doctor we had just seen was the first male doctor he had ever encountered.

I assured him that men could indeed be doctors. But I was careful to add “and nurses, of course.” His observation was a powerful reminder of the feminist mantra: “you have to see it to be it.” If any particular activity, including work, is seen as intended for people of the opposite sex, it is unlikely to feature in your own aspirations.

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 matter. As Gloria Steinem said in 1995, “The way we separate ourselves into our false notions of male and female is what we see as children.”

In recent decades, tremendous progress has been made in breaking down the gender stereotypes associated with many traditionally male professions, including science, medicine, engineering, law and even the military. When Perry Mason’s original series aired in 1966, only 4 percent of law students were women. At the time of HBO’s summer 2020 rerun, there were as many women in law school as there were men. Terms like “woman lawyer” and “woman doctor” already sound outdated.

Similar trends can be seen in other previously male-dominated fields. In 1980, women accounted for only 13% of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) jobs; the share has already doubled to 27%. There is certainly more work to be done here. Progress is especially slow in the world of technology. But overall, what Harvard’s Claudia Goldin calls the “gender aura” surrounding most male-dominated professions has diminished.

But the same is not true in the other direction. Traditionally female occupations, especially in what I call the HEAL fields – health, education, administration and literacy – have become even more “pink collar”. Only 26% of HEAL jobs are held by men, down from 35% in 1980. Gender desegregation in the labor market has so far been almost entirely one-way. Women do “men’s work”. Men don’t do “women’s work”.

In some occupations, the decline in the share of men has been dramatic. The share of men in psychology, for example, has fallen from 39% to 29% over the past decade. And the trend will continue. Among psychologists under the age of 30, the share of men is only 5%. Fewer than one in five social workers are male (18%), half the proportion in 1980. The only profession where the proportion of nurses has increased, albeit painfully slowly, is nursing, which is now 13 % men.

Men represent 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 shame that only 3% of preschool and kindergarten teachers are male. There are twice as many women flying US military aircraft as there are men teaching kindergarten (as a share of the occupation).

There are three compelling reasons to get more men involved in HEAL. First, given the decline in traditionally male occupations, men should seek employment in these sectors. Blue collar jobs are disappearing. There will also be more STEM jobs, but they are much smaller occupations. STEM accounts for only about 7% of all jobs, compared to 23% in HEAL. For every STEM job created between now and 2030, there will be three new HEAL jobs. The labor market is feminizing faster than men.

It’s true that some HEAL jobs don’t pay as well, while most STEM jobs do. Medical assistants, for example, make about $38,000 a year. But many traditionally male occupations are also not highly paid: both construction workers and bus and taxi drivers earn about as much as medical assistants. Additionally, there are many HEAL jobs that offer good pay and benefits, including nurse practitioners ($100,000), medical and health services managers ($71,000), education and child care administrators ($70,000), and occupational therapists ($72,000).

The second reason to include more men in HEAL is to help address labor shortages in critical occupations. Almost half of registered nurses are now over the age of 50. This means that many of them are likely to retire in the next 15 years, especially if they are under more stress at work. And the number of nurses and nurse practitioners needed is expected to increase by about 400,000 by 2030. In September 2021, the American Nurses Association called on the federal government to declare a “national nursing staffing crisis.”

Teaching faces similar challenges, especially in certain cities and states. Enrollment rates in teacher education programs fell by more than a third between 2000 and 2018, with the decline greater for men than for women. The pandemic made things worse. Drastic measures are being taken in some places. New Mexico has called in National Guard soldiers as substitute teachers; a Minneapolis school district asked for parent volunteers to get a substitute teacher license; and Polk County, Florida, brought sixty teachers from eight foreign 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 campaign to recruit teachers, including men, is needed. We are facing labor shortages in two of the largest and most important sectors of our economy – health care and education. But we are trying to solve them with only half the manpower.

The third argument for men in HEAL is to provide better services to boys and men. Many would prefer to be cared for by a man, especially in certain circumstances. Consider the case of a man needing help using the toilet in a hospital or nursing home, or a middle-aged man needing a therapist to help with his pornography addiction, or a fatherless teenager needing help by a psychologist with their substance abuse. In any case, they may prefer a male provider. At least it should be an option.

It is not ideal if most substance abuse counselors are female (76%) when most substance abusers are male (67%), or that most special education teachers are female (84%) when most students referred to special training, are men (64 %). I’m not saying we should strive for perfect gender equality in these professions. But it is reasonable to aim for a closer match between consumers and suppliers.

Getting more men into the HEAL professions would be good for men, good for the profession and good for clients – a win-win.

But how? By learning the lessons of the successful movement to get more women into STEM careers. As a society, we recognized the need for more women to work in science and science and invested accordingly. Now the same goes for men and TREATMENT. I propose at least $1 billion in national investment over the next decade in service of this goal.

We need new scholarships for young men who choose to study HEAL subjects at college, like the existing ones for women pursuing STEM. This should also include getting more men into vocational training courses, such as in health administration. We need an aggressive recruitment program to attract more male faculty in HEAL topics: currently only 6% of nursing professors are male. We need grants for HEAL employers to diversify their workforce by hiring more men. Higher pay would also help. K-12 teachers haven’t seen a pay raise in this century.

Above all, we need a cultural change so that some workplaces stop being perceived as no-go zones for men. This means addressing the stigma faced by many men who do choose these roles as feminine or professional failures. Women had to break gender stereotypes to enter male occupations; men will have to do the same for female-dominated HEAL jobs.

In short, we need a national effort. As I have argued here, attracting more men to HEAL jobs is important for their own economic prospects, given the decline of many traditionally male jobs. But it would also be good for society. Men can HEAL.

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