“Are You Man Enough to Be a Nurse?” Campaign Posters

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.

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Mike Messner, “Soft Essentialism,” and Ideologies that Gender Social Spaces

Mike Messner has written a few pieces that I do not teach courses on gender without.  One of them is an article about the opening ceremonies of a American Youth Soccer League in which his son participated–“Barbie Girls Versus Sea Monsters: Children Constructing Gender” (2000).*  What I love about the article is Messner’s simultaneous attention to structure, culture, and agency.  He does this in a way that is beautiful in its simplicity.

The following is the scenario Messner witnessed and wrote about.  The opening ceremony for this league asks players to come dressed in uniform and with banners (if they have them), and beyond attempting to create a community, the event seems designed to help the young boys and girls feel like athletes.  Each team walks around the track at the local high school football field behind their banner as they are announced.  The boys’ team that Messner discusses (the “Sea Monsters”) is sitting together, proudly looking at their large banner of a sea snake appearing to eat a soccer ball.  A girls’ team (the “Barbie Girls”) enters pulling a wagon with a large Barbie doll standing on a rotating platform and dancing and singing along to Barbie-themed music coming out of a boom box.   While at first the boys seem entranced, smiling (and perhaps even wanting to take part), eventually, enough of the boys notice each other noticing the Barbie parade going on and they take action.  One of the boys yells out, “NO BARBIE!” and they are on the move, jumping around, and bumping one another.  The girls do a good job of not noticing, but “NO BARBIE!” ends up serving as a chant that unites the Sea Monsters in solidarity.

One of the most interesting parts of this analysis to me is that Messner also pays careful attention to the adults in this interaction and examines how they make sense of this behavior.  It’s a great example of Thorne’s concept of “borderwork.”  The adults take this moment as an opportunity to reflect on just how different boys and girls are.  Messner illustrates how much work it is to actually think of boys and girls as completely different sorts of creatures. Continue reading