Men in Caring Occupations: Doing Gender Differently

March 12, 2009

Men in Caring Occupations goes some way to overturn Mairtin Mac an Ghaill's (1994) suggestion that the absence of focus on men and masculinities in mainstream academic research on occupations signals their "universal first-class status", precluding the need for further analysis. Ruth Simpson draws on the fact that as women have been entering occupations defined as "male", there has been a slower movement of men into traditionally female jobs. An examination of this contrast forms the focus of Simpson's book and examines men who have done just that - entered occupations previously identified as feminine.

The research is deemed relevant given what Simpson terms "the widespread changes in occupational structure, the diminution of traditionally male jobs, the growth of the service industries and the need to address shortages in teaching and nursing". She adopts a social constructionist approach to the research by exploring the individual experiences of male respondents and how they make sense of the realities of their chosen occupations. She does this by interviewing 74 men in the UK and Australia working in four occupational groups traditionally defined as feminine: nursing, primary school teaching, librarianship and airline cabin crew. Their experiences are also supported by interviews with women who work alongside them.

Simpson begins by introducing various theories surrounding men who choose to work in non-traditional occupations. A key discussion surrounds the dynamics of career entry and career choice. Here, she draws on the work of L. Susan Williams and Wayne J. Villemez (1993) who differentiated between three groups of men: seekers, who actively sought female-dominated jobs; finders, who were simply seeking alternative forms of work; and leavers, who were in female jobs and left them. This is followed by a chapter concerned with making sense of identities. Here, Simpson draws on research by Robert W. Connell (2000) and others to suggest that in any discussion of masculinity and identity, women have been conceptualised as "the Other", with men positioned as "One" - a unified source of power and privilege. This is expanded through a discussion in chapter three of the dichotomy between the (in)visibility of caring occupations when undertaken by women, and the celebration of visibility when such occupations are undertaken by men, thereby becoming differentiated from the Other and, by definition, from nature.

The middle section of the book focuses on the four chosen occupations. Each is examined in detail, drawing on previously discussed theories as well as allowing the voices of men engaged in the occupations to be heard through interview analysis. A key theme to emerge from Simpson's assessment of each occupation appears to be that men are reframing the emotional and caring requirements of their jobs in masculine terms. For example, male cabin crew talk about the safety aspects of their role rather than the domestic element. In teaching, men discuss their roles as being more "professional" than those of their female colleagues. Professionalism is achieved by the "contra-positioning of revised management expectations of results and curriculum developments in contrast to feminine discourses of trivia and care". In nursing, male respondents talk about being encouraged into gender-congruent specialisms such as A&E or mental health, and male librarians' identities appear to have become constructed around more masculine activities such as expertise in information technology.

A final chapter takes a detailed overview of the "dynamics of difference" in "doing gender". Simpson suggests that this allows a deeper inquiry into identity construction. She proposes that her research suggests that men can be said to flatten, activate, invoke, make creative use, deny, resist and struggle, embrace, play, acknowledge and make strategic use of difference in their choice of non-traditional roles.

This is a very welcome book on the field of occupational choice. It is well signposted and written for both undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as a non-academic audience. I have already ordered library copies and included it as a "must-read" addition to reading lists on gender and occupational choice.

Men in Caring Occupations: Doing Gender Differently

By Ruth Simpson

Palgrave Macmillan, 208pp, £50.00

ISBN 9780230574069

Published 15 January 2009

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