Iowa City Stories

May 13, 2010

Male Nursing Students Breach the Gender Barrier at UI

Filed under: IC Stories: Goater, UI Majors, Iowa City Stories — claegoater @ 12:01 pm

The new minority
Historically, the American woman has lived the life of a second-class citizen. Today, at least in the realm of higher education, this tradition is being reversed. More women than men are seeking tertiary education. Women are excelling in college more than men. More women are going on to graduate school than men.  And projections indicate that this pattern only going to intensify in the coming years.

Even with given these historical upsets, gender is still a topic that’s very entrenched in the modern system of higher education. There remains a clear division between the majors that men and women choose.  Math and hard sciences are still seen as men’s work, while liberal arts and communication draw more women. How can these divisions still exist as more and more women seek college degrees? And what is it like to be a male student in an increasingly female-dominated undergraduate population?

Any males reading this article should pay close attention to the words of Douglas Buchan and Jared Proctor. They are two of 57 males in the college or nursing at UI, a department with 697 total undergraduates. As women continue to gain ground on men in the world of academia, the collegiate experiences of Buchan and Proctor will become closer and closer to the norm.

Socialized into No Man’s Land

How can the gender gap within college majors remain steady even as the proportion of women to men keeps increasing? The answer probably goes far beyond biology. “There are a couple of biological differences between men and women. Psychologists have looked for like 200, and out of those 200 they find five or six,” said Sociology Professor Steven Hitlin. “Men are better at spatial relations- type of things. Of course, men play with toys when their boys that help teach them that kind of stuff. Women are a little bit more verbal by the time they are adults, but they’re also reinforced for that. For the most part, we’re pretty similar, and it’s all a bunch of stereotypes.”

Most CEO’s are male, most social workers are female. Because of this, we raise our boys to grow up to be CEOs and our girls to be social workers. Because the next generation of CEOs will be mostly men, most of the children raised to be CEOs will be boys. Because these stereotypes have been entrenched for so long, we end up applying “masculine” or “feminine” qualities to a profession no matter how arbitrary the label might be.  “You start confusing the position… with the gender who’s in that position,” Hitlin said. “A lot of this is unconscious, but it shapes the way you perceive the world.”

To transcend these gender roles requires some combination of strength, self-assuredness, and nose-thumbing defiance.   “I am a free thinker that is open to looking at opportunities beyond their face value, “Proctor says. “{I} feel that I see the world from a different, less-tainted, viewpoint.” Having experience with independent women may also make it easier for Proctor to work in No Man’s Land. “I was raised by a single mother from a young age and that has helped me to move beyond a lot of gender biases. I feel a little more in tune with women than most men, and I don’t have any hesitations {about} being around women as co-workers or superiors.”

Proctor’s Zen-like musings are nicely counterbalanced by Buchan’s no-nonsense approach. “I don’t care about stigmas,” Buchan says, “and I don’t put up with BS either.”

Why Work, Anyway?

There also seem to be differences in the criteria that men and women use to evaluate job opportunities. While there aren’t many biological differences between men and women, there’s one big one that affects how we choose our careers. That undeniable, concrete difference is the ability to bear children. “Women, I think, in our country are socialized to want to be mothers. Sometimes, then, women choose career paths that allow them to juggle children and work,” Hitlin said. “Other countries have different ideas about who should stay home more, making it easier for both men and women to stay home without a penalty going back into work. Society could make it so that it’s easier to have kids and go back {to their careers}, in which case women might not have to choose their jobs the same way.”

According to Hitlin, men tend to choose their careers based off of the monetary rewards available. “Men are more likely to select into the jobs and majors that are better paying, and for whatever reason, we reward math and science more,” said Hitlin. “Math and science are things that men are told they’re supposed to be good at all throughout their lives, even though women do better in school. So men go into these majors, and they get these higher-paying jobs, and men have more status and money.”

Thus, people who don’t want their lives to revolve around work might be drawn to traditionally female majors. “I love that I’ll be free to practice medicine and still be able to carry out a life with a strong family focus,” Proctor says. “As long as I can pay my bills and provide for my family I’ll be happy.”

The Classroom’s Odd Man Out

There are differences between the behavior of males and females in the classroom from the very beginning of their academic careers. “Boys get more attention, good and bad. Boys seem to think they’re more entitled to attention. They’re less concerned about what people think of them,” Hitlin said. “By the time you’re in college, that stuff has been around for a long time, and it’s going to seem natural.” But, in a situation where men are in the vast majority, the tables could turn. If the topic of discussion is considered an area of female expertise, women will talk more and men will get crowded out.

Being the only person who’s different in an otherwise homogenous classroom is going to affect your educational experience, no matter what criteria you use. “If you know that you’re the only person from Iowa in the class and everyone else is from Illinois, you’re going to feel a little different,” said Hitlin. “It’s just a very human thing; we tend to notice who’s like us and who’s not.”

Proctor thinks that the overwhelming gender gap in his major might affect the type of communication going on in the classroom. “I feel that instructors in the field, at least at an entry level, seem more attuned to women,“ he said, mentioning that “it can be a little difficult for men to grasp at first.

Buchan had similar sentiments. “In the pre-nursing classes I have had, the teachers … spent class time with fluff and feel-good bogus. We spent two lectures going through the lecture hall introducing ourselves,” Buchan said.  “The girls in the class were fine with it while they texted away. The guys in the class, all four out of a hundred of us, were mumbles and grumbles about the waste of time.”

Buchan also acknowledges that being outnumbered by women makes him alter his interactions with his peers. “Really there is a challenge in watching what you say, what you do. You can’t be ‘One of the Guys’ in a group of females. But this isn’t unique. Females have been doing this since they entered the job market.”

Proctor also makes it clear that, even with the difficulties he faces, he has it easy by comparison. “I really feel that gender biases have only really been hurtful to women in the past, and that women entering a ‘man’s’ field have the real challenges or preconceived notions to hurdle.”

There may even be a few upsides to being the only swinging bachelor in the nursing program. “You can’t be surrounded by women all day and not get a better feel for how they act,” Buchan says.  “Plus with all the whining and moaning about husbands and boyfriends, you get a good long list of things not to do.”

Putting Up With Our BS

The gender gap in college majors is never just going to disappear overnight. Women were not welcome in institutions of higher learning before 1848.  It’s taken over a century for the college enrollment levels to swing in women’s favor. Not only is that, but the division of labor by gender as close to a universal human phenomenon as you are likely to find.


So, as always, change will be slow and laborious. But always remember, you and I are the ultimate source of the BS that Proctor and Buchan refuse to put up with.  By being more aware of the social forces that push the genders in different directions, we can work alleviate the burden associated with taking that big step across the gender gap. By educating ourselves and maintaining open minds, we help ensure that the female engineers and male nurses of our future will have to put up with less BS than their contemporary counterparts.

For a look at some more major-specific issues, click here.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] In the end, many undergrads sign up for a major based on what interests them, without knowing much about the program. Here, we’ll take a look at the most popular majors at the University of Iowa, and what type of classroom experience a student can expect from each department. To read about gender issues as related to university majors, click here. […]

    Pingback by Major Indecision: Issues and Logistics for UI’s Top Five Majors « Iowa City Stories — May 13, 2010 @ 12:09 pm


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