Opinion

For gender equality, we need more male secretaries, like Obama's Jeremy Bernard

Jeremy Bernard is the new White House social secretary – the first male to ever hold the position, and a signpost in the fight for gender equality. We need to tackle not just the stereotypes restricting women, but men as well. Excluding men from nurturing roles in our society is bad for all of us.

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The White House just hired a new social secretary, and for the first time since the position was created, the position was given to a man – Jeremy Bernard. While there have certainly been qualified male candidates for the post in past years, many mused whether any would take the job, given its history as a woman’s post. The White House Social Secretary is just one position, and a high-powered and glamorous one at that. But these musings represent a new front in the fight for gender equality.

Yes, today women can be CEOs, scientists, and senators. But if a man won’t take a job just because it has traditionally been done by a woman, we still have a long way to go.

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Consider nursing. While women have made great inroads in medicine, from nearly no presence in medical schools in the 1950s to roughly even enrollment today, nursing has remained a primarily female role. Despite efforts to recruit male students at many nursing schools, the Department of Labor estimates that only about 6 percent of nurses in the United States are male. Yet this is a good profession! Men are missing out on a stable, moderately well paying job that is always in demand. Furthermore, the lack of male enrollment contributes to a nationwide nursing shortage expected to intensify in the coming years as the baby boomers continue to age.

Other stereotypically “female roles” have also failed to attract male interest: estimates show that 82 percent of elementary and middle school teachers, 96 percent of child care providers, and anywhere from 71 to 98 percent of secretaries are female. Like nursing, these industries might benefit from higher male enrollment.

Why so few men?

For example, many school superintendents and principals lament the short supply of male teachers. They are not suggesting that male teaches are better, but with so many students from single-parent, usually single mother, households, more male role models in the classroom couldn’t be a bad thing. Like nursing schools, many districts have even made efforts to specifically recruit men for teaching positions, especially in early education.

So why are there still so few men in these roles? Part of it may be pay. Nursing and teaching are stable jobs with benefits, but not huge moneymakers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that elementary school teachers start at an average annual salary of about $33,000. The median annual salary for Registered Nurses is about $62,000. Childcare workers are likely to be self-employed, and make a median annual salary of $20,000 or less.

But many heavily male jobs pay little more than these positions. While median hourly wages for electricians put projected annual salaries at more than $40,000, many construction and manufacturing jobs pay less than $30,000 a year, and often with no benefits. Salary alone does not explain the disparity.

Stereotypes, not low pay exclude men

No, more probable is that it's just not appealing for most men to take on what many view as a woman’s job. Male elementary school teachers and childcare providers speculate on Menteach.org that their ranks remain small because many men are worried that these jobs would make them seem maternal, not masculine. Surveys by the American Assembly for Men in Nursing report that the number one challenge for men in the nursing profession is confronting gender stereotypes.

Even the titles may seem to exclude men. Society has created alternative terms for them in these professions: male nurse, male nanny, or, worse yet, the derogatory “murse” and “manny.” Just as policeman, congressman, and chairman implicitly excluded women, the bias against men may be built right into these professions.

Fighting these barriers is urgent

If the barriers to male participation are so high, many may ask, why bother? After all, thanks in part to these professions, women have had lower unemployment for the past few years. Unlike construction and manufacturing, which suffered high job losses, nursing, teaching, and childcare seem recession-proof. If men don’t want these jobs, then women can fill them and benefit from their stability.

But fighting these barriers is necessary and even urgent, because until men are willing to take on these female jobs, gender disparities will persist. Nursing is seen as female work, yes, but so is housework and childcare. If nurturing our sick and our young and maintaining family life are devalued as unmanly tasks, then the responsibility for the well being of our society inevitably falls more heavily on women. The result not only restricts women’s career options, but also prevents men from playing roles vital to the maintenance of society.

Top 10 countries for women: Global Gender Gap Index 2010

Gender equality demands overcoming traditional roles in both the workplace and the home. The stereotypes restricting female roles have faded some, but we must now tackle those restricting men. President Obama just might have taken a first step last week by putting a male Social Secretary in the White House.

Dominique Gómez is a joint masters degree candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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