Curing stereotypes

Amanda Garrett

Women and men begin to find niches in jobs traditionally associated with the opposite gender

John Flavelle, senior nursing major, hopes to work as a male nurse at the Cleveland Clinic.

Credit: Andrew popik

John Flavelle is not a doctor — or a Focker — or a “murse.”

Flavelle is a senior nursing major, and, as one of the minority of men in his chosen profession, he’s used to some confusion — and some teasing.

“Patients make the wrong assumptions when they see me and think I’m a doctor,” Flavelle said. “Or when they find out I’m a nurse, they say things like ‘You have to start out somewhere,’ or they compare me to Gaylord Focker from the Meet the Parents movies.”

Flavelle said he tries to take the joking with a grain of salt.

“Some of my colleagues hear all those comments and they take them to heart,” he said. “I really don’t take offense. I try to use those comments to educate people that this is my chosen career, and there are a lot of opportunities for men in the nursing profession.”

Flavelle is part of a small but growing trend of men and women who are choosing professions that aren’t traditionally associated with their gender. Increasingly, women are making strides in traditionally male fields such as construction and politics, but they still struggle to break out of lower-paying service jobs.

Shifting demographics

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, male nurses make up 5.4 percent of all nurses in America. This is a small percentage of the more than 9 million nurses in the United States, but it is double the number of male nurses in 1980, said Carol Cooke, spokeswoman for the American Nurses Association.

Women are also making inroads in traditionally male professions. Women make up 10 percent of the 9 million construction workers, said Kara Roberson, chief marketing and communications consultant for the National Association of Women in Construction.

Kent State alumna Mardi Gauer, who works in construction, said she has occasionally run up against some not-so-enlightened men.

“Sometimes, there is outright dismissal because you’re a woman,” she said. “I just give them a look that lets them know what I think. I usually don’t ask for an apology because people like that are so ignorant they’re beyond giving an apology.

“I like working in construction because I enjoy seeing things built from the ground up and working on the different problems that come up in the process,” she said. “Believe it or not, I also enjoy working with men.”

Even though there are more people like Flavelle and Gauer, most women are still working at traditionally female jobs.

Analyzing job demographics

According to the 2000 U. S. Census, there are more than 12 million women working as secretaries, child-care givers and dental assistants.

Women gravitate to these lower-paying service jobs because of the nature of American society, sociology professor Elaine Hall said.

“We live in what sociologists call a patriarchal society,” she said. “What men do is considered right and normal, and what women do is considered different from the norm and of lesser quality.”

This devaluation of women leads to subtle changes in society’s views of career choices, Hall said.

“In our society, jobs that are done by women are primarily care and nurturing, and you are supposed to take on macho characteristics to succeed at a male-gendered job.”

When a male-gendered job begins to see an influx of female workers, there is an immediate reaction, Hall said.

“When there is a good increase of women going into a male-dominated occupation, men start to leave that profession,” she said. “The pay seems to start to go lower or it rises very slowly.”

Women in politics

The numbers of women in state and national politics have increased through the years. Currently, there are 14 female senators and 66 congresswomen. Women have also made strides in local government, where they make up more than 25 percent of all state legislatures, according to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutger’s University. Women’s success in state and local government has proven to be good for women who want to break through the glass ceiling, political science professor Gertrude Steuernagel said.

“The increased number of women in national politics is the end result of more women in state and local politics,” Steuernagel said. “Local politics are pipeline that create viable candidates for offices at the national level.”

Although women are becoming an increasingly important part of the political landscape, that doesn’t necessarily mean that women’s issues are better represented, women’s studies instructor Suzanne Holt said.

“Once women reach a position of power in politics, most of them lose their feminine qualities because they wouldn’t be able to function as women,” she said.

“Women who have become very powerful in politics don’t have particularly pro-women agendas because they don’t have the license to do so.”

Women’s Culture

Political and social movements have led to a limited, but fragmented, women’s culture in the United States, Holt said.

“Women’s culture is like an uncultivated garden. Women have always come together for the traditional waves of the feminist movement, like winning the right to vote and reproductive rights,” she said. “But women aren’t encouraged to be together as a group. Instead, they are encouraged to spend time with their husbands and children.”

The stereotypes of unattainable beauty exemplified by the Hollywood starlets plastered all over supermarket magazine shelves don’t help women achieve better places in society, Holt said.

“Female body image is the most perfect double-edged sword,” Holt said. “We live in a moment women have to be flawlessly beautiful and sexually attractive. It’s the litmus test for being a woman.”

The future of gender issues

Although there probably will be advances in women’s rights in the future, they will be hard won, Hall said.

“There is slow but steady progress,” she said. “Our children and grandchildren will be fighting some of these things in the future.”

Holt said she expects change to come incrementally with a new generation of women fighting for their rights.

In the last three decades, women have narrowed the college education gap. According to the 2000 census, more than 22 percent of American women have earned a bachelor’s degree compared to 8 percent in 1970.

“By attending college, women have a chance to ask hard questions and make changes, not only in their own lives, but in their daughters’ lives,” Holt said. “Once you start opening books and asking questions, things start changing.”

Contact news correspondent Amanda Garrett at [email protected].