Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Sep 10, 2019

Stereotypes about Masculinity May Hinder Men's Careers in Caregiving Professions

by Leah R. Halper and Colleen M. Cowgill
Group of seniors playing cards in retirement home with male caregiver looking on

A great deal of energy has gone into figuring out why women are underrepresented in STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics), especially engineering and mathematics. However, this is not the only large gender difference in careers. Men are highly underrepresented in caregiving jobs, such as nursing, social work, and teaching, in which care of other people is the primary focus. Although women are breaking into the STEM fields, especially biology and medicine, men are still severely underrepresented in caregiving jobs. Why?

We suspected that it may have something to do with how people perceive them. Men are stereotyped as unemotional, ambitious, and intelligent, as competent, and as leaders. None of these adjectives really fit with someone in a caregiving role. Those who care for others are stereotypically warm, friendly, and considerate — how women are often described.

Could this incongruence between stereotypically masculine traits and the traits associated with caregiving hinder men who pursue professions such as nursing and childcare?

To find out, we conducted three studies in which we asked people to read job application materials or performance evaluation materials that we created. These materials — all for jobs in which caregiving is a major component, such as early childhood education and social work — had either a woman’s name attached to them or a man’s name. Except for the names, the materials were identical, describing the person in exactly the same way. We then asked our research participants questions about how they perceived the woman or the man. Did they think the person would be hired? Did the person seem likeable? Suitable for the job? Friendly? Dependable? Warm? Trustworthy? Competent?

Our studies found that people who thought they were evaluating men rated the applicants or employees as less warm, less empathic, and less trustworthy than those who thought they were evaluating women.

And, this discrepancy between the ratings of men and women was not trivial. Perceptions of men as less warm and less likable also led participants to perceive them as less suitable for jobs within these caregiving fields and less likely to be hired for such jobs. These downstream consequences occurred even though research participants rated the men as just as competent as they rated the women.

These findings suggest that, even though men do not face skepticism about their cognitive ability to perform job duties associated with caregiving professions, people view them as a “mismatch” for these jobs because they are not seen as possessing stereotypically feminine social traits. These perceptions may present obstacles for men seeking to enter into these professions, obstacles that are similar to the challenges women face when entering STEM.

Given these findings, we should try to find ways to reduce the biases associated with men and caregiving. One possible way to do this is to increase the number of male public figures who perform such work. If there were more male head nurses or male social workers interviewed by the press, people might become more accustomed to the idea of men in these roles. Supporting this possibility, role model interventions — in which successful people in a field speak to potential future leaders — have been shown to help recruit and retain women in STEM, and this strategy may also be effective with men in caregiving. If such interventions work, maybe jobs will be less gendered in the future.

For Further Reading

Croft, A., Schmader, T., & Block, K. (2015). An underexamined inequality: Cultural and psychological barriers to men’s engagement with communal roles. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 19(4), 343-370. doi: 10.1177/1088868314564789

Halper, L.R., Cowgill, C.M., & Rios, K. (2019). Gender bias in caregiving professions: The role of perceived warmth. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1-14. doi: 10.1111/jasp.12615

Moss‐Racusin, C. A., & Johnson, E. R. (2016). Backlash against male elementary educators. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 46(7), 379-393. doi: 10.1111/jasp.12366


Leah R. Halper has a PhD in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from Ohio University and is currently an Associate Director of a research and assessment office at The Ohio State University; her research focuses on motivation in the workplace, gender issues in the workplace, and the relationships between the two.

Colleen M. Cowgill is a doctoral student at Ohio University who studies the psychology of religion, stereotyping, gender roles, and intergroup relations.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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