Pink Collared and Proud

16th June 2017

Do you look at this picture and make the assumption that the women are nurses and the man is a doctor? If you do, you’re not alone. Heather Harris meets men who’ve made a career working in a woman’s world…

Recently I spent hours, online and off, trying to buy my teenage daughter a second-hand car. I had Auto Trader on speed dial and soon became an authority on the relative performance of every small car I could afford to insure without having to sell my house. It was fascinating stuff, but the attitude towards my new-found obsession was alarming. Not, I should add, from the numerous garages and car dealers I visited, but from friends and family.

“Cars? Surely that’s a blue job?” was my best friend’s reaction, while my mother assumed my husband had left me and his friends questioned his virility. “But she’s a woman…”

The truth was that, at the time, my husband was too busy looking after his 88-year-old mother – including showering and dressing her. Again, this role reversal provoked shocked responses from all around us. ‘He’s amazing doing all that…’ ‘I can’t believe she let him – didn’t she want you to do it?’ and ‘Wow, he’s in touch with his feminine side…’

It is incredible that in today’s supposedly enlightened society, when it comes to blue and pink collared jobs there is still a huge divide. And not just at home (putting bins out – blue/ hoovering – pink) but also in the workplace. A recent TUC study reported that the overall ‘structure of employment’ remains highly polarised, ‘with men and women dominating occupations traditionally regarded as male (manual jobs) and female (caring, retail, and personal service jobs)’.

Their statistics back it up. Nine out of ten registered nurses are female, 82% of social workers are female, 80% of registered nannies are female, 81% of infant and primary school teachers are female, and of the 48,000 midwives currently practising in the UK, only 121 are men.

And this gender imbalance is not good for the economy as behaviorist Teresa Ghilarducci recently told The New York Times: “Artificial barriers, such as the stigma around ‘women’s work’ makes it more difficult for companies to find the best match when hiring.”

Social worker Winston Morson agrees. He has been in the profession since 2010 and the number of male applicants has been steadily declining.

“The problem is that social work is one of the ‘Cinderella services’,” he explains. “It happens in the shadows, away from the limelight – unless it’s for a headline-hitting news story. People just get on with their jobs with little recognition, so it doesn’t suit the male ego.” His words, not mine.

Interestingly, though, the high profile managerial side of social work does have more men, but the day-to-day, face-to-face sector is dominated by women.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do when finished A-levels but I knew the corporate world didn’t match my socialist principles. I had a brother with a disability and this made me realise that I wanted to follow a caring profession,” Winston tells me, explaining that the origin of social work dates back to a time when female gentry with time on their hands would knock on the doors of the poor to see if they needed help. It’s very different now.

The average career span is short, with most social workers suffering burnout after eight years. “This also puts off a lot of men who are looking for a career for life,” Winston observes, adding that from his perspective it’s certainly a vocation. “You have to love it and have patience and resilience to cope with the day-to-day pressures and be flexible to cope with all sorts of challenging situations. If you have the right personality, I would recommend it to any man or woman.”

Similar traits are required in the nursing profession but here at least the number of male applicants is increasing. Chris Birbeck, who has been in the profession for 35 years, tells me that when he started in 1981 there were 28 women and three men in his training group, but that by the mid-80s this type of gap had closed, as nursing became perceived as a viable job option for a man.

“When I first went onto the wards people would stop and stare,” Chris says, “and we had to wait for ages to get our uniform as no one stocked nurses’ trousers. Even the first female Sister I worked under told me that I had to prove that I was good enough because I was a man…”

Ironically, the patients themselves never seemed to question his ability to do the job, although they did make two assumptions: 1] that he was gay, and 2] that he wanted to become a doctor. Neither was true.

Bernard Place suffered from the same misconceptions. He also became a nurse in the 80s, after working as a hospital porter during his university years, when, he reports, “all porters were men and all nurses were women.”

But this didn’t put him off, and, after qualifying, his first job was on a female surgical ward specialising in breast surgery.

“Most of my male colleagues chose to go into more technical areas such as critical care, but I really enjoyed the close relationship with the patients that a surgical ward demands,” he says, adding that like Chris he found that patients were very accepting. “They were more concerned with how good I was at my job, rather than my gender.”

Mark Harris, who qualified as a midwife in 1994, experienced the same level of patient acceptance. “I worked on a labour ward in Leicester Royal Hospital for 16 years… there was a large Asian population, so I always had to be very sensitive to their cultural needs. I would make sure I gave them the chance to opt for a female midwife but very few ever did.”

Clearly passionate about his job, Mark has written books on the subject, and set up a birthing4blokes website. He’s delivered thousands of babies, and shares his favourite memory: “It was a 16-year-old woman who gave birth with a room full of relatives, including her grandad, to the music of James Brown blaring out. It was so emotional we were all in tears by the time her son appeared!”

He also admits being over-emotional when he attended the birth of his own grandson. “It wasn’t easy being a midwife, dad and grandad all at the same time.”

Positive comments regarding male midwives on popular online forum Mumsnet suggest it’s time the profession shook off any negative stigma and welcomed more men aboard.

There’s definitely little censure about men entering the teaching profession, where the continued dominance of women frustrates employers and parents alike.

“We certainly offer a skill set that appeals to head teachers,” primary school teacher Mark Loczy points out, explaining that his background in sport was particularly attractive to potential employers when he was looking for a job.

“I first decided to become a teacher after working in a children’s swim school while at university studying Sport and Leisure Studies. Some friends – and my ex teachers – were initially surprised, and I was definitely in a minority whilst studying,” he says.

Over the past decade, he has worked with a range of ages from Year One upwards but prefers his current post with Year Five at Greenway Primary School in Berkhamsted. “At this age, you can have more of a laugh and joke with them. You can also really feel like you’re extending their knowledge.”

He has always found parents’ attitudes very positive, perhaps because of the extra respect a male teacher commands. “I do think that one advantage is our vocal range. We can sound cross without raising our voice and shouting, so I often get the naughty children sent to me!”

Mark is reluctant to follow a career up the educational ladder to a Headship. “I really enjoy the actual teaching with the children themselves and would miss the classroom.”

Significantly, this is also a comment voiced by Bernard who returned to being a Staff Nurse after spending time in a more lucrative and prestigious role of Director of Nursing: “I missed the patients,” he explains.

Winston, at 45, is still a hands-on social worker; Chris, at 55, has only recently retired from nursing.

Clearly, all these men were – and still are – driven by a passion for the job itself rather than any financial gain or impressive title. It is a great shame that society doesn’t value such motives and that a woman succeeding in a male dominated job – such as engineering or science is championed, whereas a man in a ‘woman’s world’ is, to use Chris’s words, “still seen as odd!”

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