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Men break down biases

Charles Mitchell -
December 15, 2004

A tiny minority in fields heavily female-dominated
They're slowly changing the face of their professions

Kevin Vanderwyk tends to surprise people when he tells them what he does for a living. As a man working as an early childhood educator, he's a minority facing the stereotype that his job is women's work and that men who do work in his field are either effeminate or, worse, sexual predators.

Child care is a truly female-dominated profession. According to Statistics Canada, of the 136,370 early childhood educators working in the country in 2001, only 5,190, or less than 4 per cent, were men.

The men who do go into traditionally female lines of work usually do so because of an intrinsic interest in the field, said Jennifer Berdahl, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management. For Vanderwyk, child care was a natural fit because his mother was a home-care provider.

"I saw her look after so many children and saw her loving the children, caring for the children and doing great activities with them, so that's how I got involved, because I loved what she did," said Vanderwyk, 29, who works with children as young as newborns. "I love the fact that I can play with the kids and play creative activities with them and teach them and it's fun to see the smile on children's faces."

His experience has been a largely positive one. Most parents are pleased to see him play with and care for their children because they see the chance for their kids to have another male role model in their early years, Vanderwyk, 29, said.

But men who work as childcare providers can face an extreme form of gender stereotyping: accusations of sexual abuse.

"You'll notice there aren't too many male nannies. People don't want to leave their kids alone in the house with men. In child-care centres people feel more comfortable," Berdahl said.

Whereas women who work in male-dominated professions tend to get stereotyped and teased by their male colleagues, men who work in female-dominated fields tend to get judged by customers, family members and friends.

"It's the people on the outside of that occupation looking at them and making feel somehow like they're defective men for pursuing that," said Berdahl.

Interior design is another field dominated by female workers, with just 20 per cent of Canada's approximately 12,000 designers being men. And the public assumption is the men that do work in interior design must be gay, said Gerry Anacleto, design director of Anacleto Design Associates in Toronto.

"It's very female dominated and the stereotype is that it's a gay male industry - and it is and very much. I think, at end of the day, you want beautiful places that work really well and that's the only thing that really interests me personally," said Anacleto.

He added that gay labels are slowly disappearing in the business and that more straight men are entering the field.

Sometimes, being a minority in his profession helps, he said, as does his background in the more "manly" occupations of residential construction and architectural design. Some clients and female colleagues consider it a refreshing change that Anacleto is both male and heterosexual and, at times, they take him more seriously because of this.

"It's one thing to walk into someone's home and say, 'We can paint this great colour, this great fabric and there is this amazing floor we can get and let's do the kitchen like this.' But it's another thing when you are talking about putting an addition onto the house or second floor or a more structural kind of work," Anacleto said.

Vanderwyk and Anacleto took relatively direct paths to their profession of choice, but some men enter traditionally female-dominated occupations through a more circuitous route. Michael Garreau left university with a background in business, toiled in the human resources field for a while and eventually found himself recruiting in health care, where he saw opportunities. He decided to jump professions and is now a nursing student at George Brown College in Toronto.

Males nurses also face gay stereotypes, he said, and also find patients are not always comfortable with them because men are perceived as more threatening and less nurturing.

"When a man's in a female-dominated occupation (he's seen as) not warm enough to be there," said Berdahl, 28.

Just 3.7 per cent of registered nurses in Ontario in 2002 were men, according to the Canadian Institute of Health Information. That disparity can often lead to different treatment between male and female nurses.

"As student nurses we have an instructor or supervisor while we're providing care and so they will ask the patients, 'so we have students today on the floor, do you mind having a male nurse?' and the client has a right to say yes or no," said Garreau, president of Nursing Students of Ontario.

To Garreau, allowing patients to choose the gender of the person providing care for them is tantamount to discrimination.

"How many times do they say, 'do you mind having a male doctor?' I'm not sure if there is the same treatment of that."

Like male child-care providers, male nurses can feel like they are under unwarranted suspicion for being sexual predators.

"You feel this heightened sense of I need to be more cautious of everything I do. Always leave the door open. Whenever someone falls and hurts themselves I always have to maintain sort of a distance, whereas a female co-worker would just definitely pick them up," Garreau said. To make sure his patients feel comfortable, he said, he only provides care to males.

As much as they continue to be entrenched in certain occupations, negative stereotypes of men working in "female" jobs are changing, not because society is evolving but because more men are entering these fields.

"They may actually start changing the way the occupation is viewed a little bit. They may bring more status and prestige to the occupation, since men are associated with more status and prestige," said Berdahl.

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