The experiences of men in female-dominated roles

Attaboy spoke to three men who are soon to embark on a career in a female-dominated industry, to find out why so few men have followed in their path.

Women have made significant progress entering male-dominated jobs such as finance, law and medicine over the last few decades. Men, on the other hand, have made far less progress entering female-dominated jobs like those of primary school teachers, nurses, and social workers. To address this imbalance, society needs to motivate more men to pursue careers they may not have considered ten or twenty years ago. Rather than speak to men already established in female-dominated roles, we got in touch with three students who are soon to embark on their new careers, to inspire other like-minded readers and combat gender stereotypes head-on.

Lorenzo Della Volpe is a 22-year-old nursing student from Pisa, Italy. After graduating in September 2020, he will enter a healthcare industry drastically different from the one he signed up for. 

He says, “It will be even more difficult to encourage people to become nurses in a post-pandemic world. Every day, nurses are in close contact with people of ill health, you are constantly at risk.”

Lorenzo will soon be one of just 20 per cent of nurses in Italy who are male. These numbers are similar across Europe and the UK. He hopes the media’s recent fixation with frontline workers will encourage more men to become nurses. He says, “In today’s society there are few people who know what a nurse is capable of, or what their job entails.”

“A lot of guys will see the low pay and perceived low status of a nurse as a sacrifice rather than an opportunity”

Lorenzo Della Volpe

He adds, “If more men understood the responsibilities of a nurse, such as administering drugs under intense pressure, then maybe they would be more inclined to pursue a career in it, because they would have more respect for the job nurses do.” 

The weekly applause for the NHS has already dwindled, and the free meals will soon expire. Society is beginning to forget the healthcare workers it once hero-worshipped. For Lorenzo that isn’t a problem, he says, “Nurses are not ‘heroes’ but people who have chosen to dedicate their life 100 per cent to help other people.”

He adds, “It makes me angry that nurses are only considered to be heroes during a national crisis.” 

For Lorenzo, there has always been an innate passion inside of him, to help other people. He says, “I started to get closer to the healthcare community thanks to the Italian Red Cross. But the real reason I decided to become a nurse was when my grandmother got sick in 2016. From then on I decided to expand my interests in the health field, my end goal is to be able to help people in the same way I wanted to help my grandmother when she was in need.”

However, Lorenzo is in the minority. Simply put, most boys don’t grow up wanting to become nurses. For Lorenzo, this has to do with the way men and women are represented by the media he says, “In Italy, and I suspect in England too, nurses are still mostly portrayed by women on TV and in films.” 

In the UK, female terms such as ‘matron’ and ‘sister’, still, reverberate around hospital corridors. Gender-neutral terminology could help move things a step in the right direction, but so much more needs to be done.

The NHS has been recognised for its diversity, although if it truly wants to reflect society then it needs to address its gender imbalance. Only 12 per cent of surgeons in the UK are women. More male nurses will hopefully pave the way for more female surgeons. 

Lorenzo does believe that toxic masculinity might be at play, “a lot of guys will see the low pay and perceived low status of a nurse as a sacrifice rather than an opportunity. Until that mindset changes, things are likely to stay the same.” 

The situation is similar in the education sector. Only 25 per cent of classroom teachers are male. Stu Hunter, 26 from Leicester, is about to start his career as an early years teacher (ages six and under) in a British international school in Luxembourg. 

He says, “when you get into primary education, the gender imbalance becomes even more obvious. During my early years’ primary course I was one of three guys in a group of 28.” The stats back it up too, just 3 per cent of men make up the early years workforce in the UK.

As a society, we are slowly changing what it means to be a man. In order to continue moving forward, more male role models are needed for students in early years education. 

“The role of a primary school teacher does not allow you to act in a hyper-aggressive way”

Stu Hunter

Stu is more than happy to belt out nursery rhyme tunes or be the but of the occasional classroom joke, he says, “My year four teacher inspired me to pursue a career in primary education. When I was her student, you could tell she genuinely cared about us.”

He adds, “Students respond more to teachers who are passionate about their jobs.”

Statistically, you are much more likely to encounter a male headmaster or secondary school teacher, rather than a primary school teacher. There is a perception, that the older the students are, the more authoritative and less nurturing you have to be as a teacher.

Stu thinks male teachers need to be seen as nurturing as well, “The role of a primary school teacher does not allow you to act in a hyper-aggressive way, and I think that’s a good thing.” 

He adds, “During the nursery years, parents prioritise nurturing qualities over teaching qualities, and this might create a subconscious bias towards female teachers.”

Rightly or wrongly, there is a culture of suspicion around male school teachers in primary education, which could explain why so few men pursue a career as an early years teacher. Stu’s own experiences as a teaching assistant attest to this, “I’m aware that I have to be more careful when a child has hurt themselves or had an ‘accident’. I have a duty of care to the child but there are some occasions when I will call upon a female colleague to assist in certain situations because I feel I’m unable to.” 

However, if we are going to strive for greater gender equality, then it’s important that men challenge these norms, and fulfil all the demanding aspects of a primary school teacher.

Jack Oliver-Blaney, 26, is a trainee social worker from Brighton. At the time of writing, men make up 18 per cent of the social care workforce in the UK. Jack’s work placement represented the overall picture, “the manager was a senior guy but every other member of the frontline team was female.” 

“I think it says something about masculinity in society that so few men are prepared to do that kind of work.”

Jack Oliver-Blaney

As with nursing and teaching Jacks says, “men are more inclined to consider social work as a low-status job.”

Although, Jack believes the demands of the role itself might also be a contributing factor, “social work is emotional labour, it’s within our code of ethics to act in an anti-oppressive way.” 

He adds, “I think it says something about masculinity in society that so few men are prepared to do that kind of work.”

However, there’s no reason why social work shouldn’t appeal to men just as much as it does to women. A lot of men might assume social work is solely about companionship. Jack says “I think social work is quite rare because it’s inherently political in its DNA.”

He adds, “As a social worker, you want to dismantle systematic oppression by empowering vulnerable individuals in society to change for the better.” 

The common denominator is men feel less inclined to become nurses, teachers or social workers because society has taught us to believe it is not their duty. Women should be no more obligated than men to fulfil these roles.

All three men profiled in this article described their work as a privilege and if boys are going to grow up to be the kind of adults we want in society, then we need more men to follow in their footsteps. 

  • Image: Tim Mossholder

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