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Why America Needs More Men Working in Health Care and Education

8 minute read
Richard V. Reeves is president of the American Institute for Boys and Men and author of Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It (Brookings Institution Press, 2022).

“I didn’t know that men could be doctors,” my son said to me when he was about six. We were driving home from a visit to the pediatrician. I was perplexed. But then I realized that the doctor we’d just seen was the first male physician he’d encountered.

I reassured 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 a job, is seen as being 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 get divided into our false notions of masculine and feminine is what we see as children.”

In recent decades, huge progress has been made in smashing the gender stereotypes associated with many traditionally male jobs, including science, medicine, engineering, law, and even the military. When the original Perry Mason series aired in 1966, just 4 percent of law students were female. By the time of HBO’s new version in summer 2020, there were as many women in law school as men. Terms like “female lawyer” and “female doctor” already sound antiquated.

Similar trends can be seen in other formerly male-dominated fields. In 1980, women accounted for just 13% of jobs in the STEM field (science, technology, engineering and math); the share has now more than doubled, to 27%. There’s more work to do here for sure. Progress has been especially slow in the tech world. But in general, what Harvard’s Claudia Goldin calls the “auras of gender” around most male-dominated professions have declined.

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

In some occupations, the decline in the male share has been dramatic. The proportion of men in psychology, for example, has dropped from 39% to 29% in the last decade. And the trend is set to continue. Among psychologists aged 30 or less, the male share is just 5%. Fewer than one in five social workers are men (18%), half the proportion in 1980. The only occupation where the share of nurses has risen, albeit painfully slowly, is nursing, which is now 13% male.

Men account for just 24% of K-12 teachers, down from 33% in the early 1980s. Only one in ten elementary school teachers are male. In early education, men are virtually invisible. It ought to be a source of national shame that only 3% of pre-K and kindergarten teachers are men. There are twice as many women flying U.S. military planes as there are men teaching kindergarten (as a share of the occupation).

There are three pressing reasons to get more men into HEAL. First, given the decline in traditional male occupations, men need to look to these sectors for jobs. Blue collar jobs are disappearing. There will be more STEM jobs, too—but these 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 jobs in HEAL. The labor market is feminizing faster than men.

It is true that some HEAL jobs do not pay that well, while most STEM jobs do. Medical assistants, for example, make around $38,000 a year. But many traditional male jobs are not highly paid either: construction workers and bus and taxi drivers both make around the same as medical assistants. And there are also plenty of HEAL jobs that offer good pay and benefits, including nurse practitioners ($100,000), medical and health services managers ($71,000), education and childcare administrators ($70,000), and occupational therapists ($72,000).

The second reason to get more men into HEAL is to help meet labor shortages in critical occupations. Almost half of all registered nurses are now over the age of 50. This means many are likely to retire over the next 15 years, especially if they are under greater 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 Nursing Association urged the federal government to declare a “national nurse staffing crisis.”

Teaching faces similar challenges, especially in particular cities and states. Enrollment rates in teacher training programs declined by more than a third between 2000 and 2018, and the fall was larger for men than for women. The pandemic made matters worse. Drastic action is being taken in some places. New Mexico has drafted National Guard soldiers as substitute teachers; a Minneapolis school district asked for parent volunteers to get a substitute teacher license; and Polk County, Florida, flew in sixty teachers from eight foreign countries, all with J-1 visas. Gov Ron DeSantis is allowing veterans without a college degree, to teach.

But these are short-term solutions at best. A massive teacher recruitment drive is needed, including among men. We face 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 workforce.

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

It is not ideal if most substance abuse counselors are women (76%) when most substance abusers are men (67%), or that most special education teachers are women (84%) when most students being referred to special education are male (64%). I’m not saying we need to aim for perfect gender parity in these occupations. But it is reasonable to aim for a closer match between users and providers.

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

But how? By learning the lessons from the successful movement to get more women into STEM professions. As a society, we recognized the need to get more women into STEM jobs, and invested accordingly. Now the same is true of men and HEAL. I propose at least a $1 billion national investment, over the next decade, in service of this goal.

We need new scholarships for young men choosing to study HEAL subjects at college, like the existing ones for women pursuing STEM. This should include getting more men into vocational training courses, too, such as in health administration. We need an aggressive recruitment program to get more male educators in HEAL subjects: right now, only 6% of nursing professors are male. We need subsidies for HEAL employers to diversify their workforce by hiring more men. Higher pay would help, too. K-12 teachers have not seen a pay rise this century.

Above all, we need a culture shift so that certain jobs stop being seen as no-go zones for men. This means tackling the stigma faced by many men who do choose these roles as effeminate, or as professional failures. Women have had to break down gender stereotypes to enter male professions; men will have to do the same for female-dominated HEAL jobs.

We need, in short, a national effort. As I have argued here, getting more men into HEAL jobs is important for their own economic prospects, given the decline of many traditional male jobs. But it would be good for society too. Men can HEAL.

Adapted from Richard Reeves’ new book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling And What To Do About It

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