By: Tristan Bridges and Sarah Mosseri
Cross-posted at The Fifth Floor
Beliefs about inherent differences between men and women are pervasive. Thinking about men and women in opposition to one another is a belief system, and one in which our culture puts a great deal of stock. Gender differences are promoted by popular culture and are subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) reproduced through our basic institutions such as the family, education, and the military. So-called “natural differences” are also called upon to justify and reinforce gendered divisions of labor by suggesting that women and men are somehow naturally suited to different kinds of work.
As with most socially constructed distinctions, the notion of “separate but equal” does not apply here. The prototypical “feminine” work is care work (e.g., teacher, nurse, social worker, flight attendant), and professions organized around “care” account for a huge proportion of women’s paid work. Barbara Reskin and Patricia Roos (here) report that roughly one third of the 66,000,000 women in the formal labor force in the early 2000’s could be accounted for by only 10 (of the 503) occupations listed on the U.S. Census! Not much has changed in more recent history either.
Now recognized as “occupational ghettos”, these female-dominated care professions are associated with a great deal of work, lower levels of cultural status and prestige, and often less pay as well. As a phenomenon, occupational segregation may well account for the majority of the gender wage gap. According to Maria Charles and David Grusky (here), occupational segregation persists less because we think of men as better and more deserving of the higher status and higher paying jobs and more because of our collective investment in the idea that men and women are simply naturally suited to different sorts of work.
Nursing is one example of this. An area of care work, nursing is a female-dominated occupation that has suffered from the effects of gendered devaluation—an issue that has made it difficult to recruit men into the field. As Paula England argues, “Because the devaluation of activities done by women has changed little, women have had strong incentive to enter male jobs, but men have little incentive to take on female activities or jobs” (here).
Intending to challenge the femininity of nursing and to directly target men for recruitment into the field, the Oregon Center for Nursing (OCN) launched the “Are You Man Enough To Be A Nurse” campaign.
The posters, having the difficult task of culturally reframing the gendered associations of nursing, strategically “borrow” symbols from a dominant form of masculinity. Specifically, they work to transfer the symbolic power of this exalted form of masculinity toward potential male nurses to empower them to enter the field. This strategic appeal to dominant masculine images and ideals can be seen in the headline, which questions not simply whether one is “man” but whether he is “man enough” to be a nurse. It’s further supported by the images of the male nurses who, muscular and toned, pose feet apart with eyes gazing directly into the camera. These are not men to be looked at, they’re staring you down, daring you to judge them.
Additionally, men in each poster are equipped with a series of masculine resources symbolized by props like surfboards, snowboards, climbing equipment, sports gear, leather jackets, golf clubs, athletic bodies, and more. Collectively, these props serve as a set of discount factors helping to authorize these men’s gender identities in their participation in culturally feminized work. Titles such as “fisherman” found underneath the men’s names and occupational descriptions emphasize these other aspects of their identities (what we might call their hobbies) that work to either culturally reinstate their masculine identities or are understood to symbolically “cancel out” the presumed emasculation resulting from being both a man and a nurse. Indeed, in highlighting their out-of-work identities, the posters present men with their hobbies first, and as nurses second. So, they’re fishermen, distance runners, Harley riders, base guitarists, scuba divers, etc. who happen to be nurses (and NOT the other way around).
Has this approach been successful? Or will it be? It depends on how you define success. The poster has enjoyed widespread acclaim and was praised by the American Assembly for Men in Nursing (AAMN) for its facilitation of improved male recruitment. In this way, it has been successful. Yet, the posters fail to challenge the underlying gender structure that positions masculinity as inherently different than (and superior to) femininity.
While not making any explicit claims about men being “better” at nursing than women (what Charles and Grusky refer to as the “tenet of male primacy”), the posters rely on our investment in gender differences (what Charles and Grusky refer to as the “tenet of gender essentialism”). Thus, perhaps in a more meaningful way, this campaign is better understood as unsuccessful—at least insofar as it might bring about meaningful change in gender relations or occupational segregation more generally. Michael Messner refers to this kind of thinking as “soft essentialism” and documents some of its pernicious effects in youth sports (see also Bridges and Kimmel on “soft essentialism”).
By appealing to a set of highly exclusive images of masculinity, the posters communicate that these men are still men; they just happen to be nurses too. In this way, the posters are actually relying on the same essentialist ideology that pushes men away from (and women toward) nursing in the first place. The takeaway messages seems to be that, unlike women who are believed to make good nurses because they are women, men make good nurses in spite of being men.