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May 21, 2014 / brockportsociology

Does Race Stop the Glass Escalator?

Research has shown that men are extremely likely to experience upward mobility in women-dominated professions. But new research suggests that not all men benefit in the same ways.

Screen shot 2014-05-21 at 3.35.24 PMBy: Dalton Rarick*

Nursing is one of the most in-demand jobs in America. As a result of this high demand, many men are seeking employment in the field. And the influx of male nurses has led to a “glass escalator effect.” This can best be described as the advancement of men in both pay and position in jobs dominated by women. Rather than confronting the “glass ceiling” women face in professions dominated by men, research has shown than men’s experiences in women-dominated professions are almost exactly the opposite. 3.coverIt was thought that this glass escalator offered a “free ride” to all men, but a new qualitative case study of 17 black male nurses by Adia Harvey Wingfield (2009) suggests otherwise. Wingfield found that black male nurses were more likely to experience the “glass ceiling” than the “glass escalator.” In the study, Wingfield conducted semi-structured interviews with 17 black male nurses and sheds new light on racial tensions and inequality in America.

Some of the roadblocks affecting black male nurses are put into stark relief in the interview data she presents. The most intense and difficult roadblock has been “institutional racism”—the system of racial inequality that has become engrained in social institutions (Giddens, et al. 2013, p. 300)—in this case hospitals, health care, and perhaps the economy more generally. Certainly, old-fashioned racism still exists today as well. This can best be explained by one of the black male nurses interviewed. He shared an instance in which he walked in to treat a patient while dressed in full scrubs. Despite his hospital attire, and working with a patient vitals machine, the patient assumed he was a janitor. White male nurses often share experiences of being mistaken for doctors. The idea that black men are better suited for lower-skilled service jobs is common in our society. Clearly Ray was not benefiting from the invisible privileges that seem to work for white men in women-dominated professions.

Another serious roadblock was stereotyping. Black men have long been stereotyped in America as less intelligent, more prone to violence, more sexually aggressive, etc. While we may think of these stereotypes as a thing of the past this was not the case for Ray. Ray recalls an incident where he walked into a patient’s room and began to care for her. When asked by the older white female patient where the nurse was, Ray responded, “I am the nurse.” The patient immediately asked to see “someone else.” Despite what we might want to believe, stereotypes continue to threaten black men, even those in respected professions.

Research like Wingfield’s is important because it shows us that inequalities are institutionalized. Women are often disadvantaged because of their gender. But, we also find that men of certain races are also disadvantaged. The intersection of gender and race form a barrier that prevents fair treatment of many members of society. By analyzing these inequalities, we come to the sobering conclusion that America’s race problems cannot be solved overnight. Rather, it will require a systematic approach of attacking institutionalized forms of racism and recognizing that inequalities are not only perpetuated by racist, sexist, classist, heterosexist, people. They get built into the institutions through which we all pass. Wingfield’s research also provides new directions for more research on this topic. What other research can be done? Are all minority men equally unlikely to benefit from the “glass escalator”? Does a man’s sexual orientation have any effect? Would a gay upper-class man experience the “glass escalator,” or would homophobia prevent this? This research also leads us to question if this type of racism is institutionalized in certain parts of the country more than other? Wingfield’s study was carried out in the South, an area many associate with racial prejudice. It’s important research and challenges us to think more carefully about intersections between gender and race when studying contemporary forms of inequality.


Giddens, A., Duneier, M., Appelbaum, R.P., Carr, D. (2013). Essentials of Sociology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Wingfield, A.H., (2009). Racializing the Glass Escalator: Reconsidering Men’s Experiences with Women’s Work. Gender & Society, 23. 5-26.


*Dalton Rarick intends to join the nursing program at The College at Brockport.  His interest in sociology stems from a desire to better understand social problems and systems of inequality.  This post was originally submitted in Dr. Tristan Bridges’ Introduction to Sociology course (SOC100) in the spring 2014 semester as a project helping students learn more about the process of searching for and evaluating social scientific research.


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