John* is about to finish his combined Bachelor of Arts and Masters of Nursing and has noticed a dramatic gender skew towards women in the Nursing component of his degree. Although most of his classes in Nursing have had three or four men, he’s had a few tutorials in which he was the only one.
When I ask if he finds this strange, his immediate response is “Not at all. Nurses care for both men and women, often at a very personal level, and have to be able to maintain a trusting therapeutic relationship with any patient. Gender stops being a major point of difference fairly quickly,” he says.
The only way he’s ever felt excluded in his degree is by “throwbacks” to older attitudes in literature and with some academics. “Occasionally nurses will be referred to in the feminine in a reading or during a lecture,” he says, but notes this is quite rare.
Tom Roberts is a close friend of mine who studies the same degree as me, Bachelor of Arts (Media and Communications). He estimates that there would be about nine female students to every one man – “a ridiculously high proportion” – but he doesn’t find the experience particularly strange. However, he sometimes finds the tiny pool of men in the degree (which only has around 120 people in total) socially limiting.
Sitting across from me at Courtyard, Tom also points out what could have been a barrier to us becoming friends. “When you’re trying to talk to girls – especially in the early stages of the degree – sometimes they’re like ‘OMG, is he hitting on me?’ and it’s like, ‘no, I’m not, there are very few men, I have no choice but to talk to girls in my degree’.” I sink low in my chair laughing as he says this looking directly at me, half accusatory, half holding back laughter: this is exactly how we met.
Louis Bridle, who studied a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Social Work at USyd, agrees that the social barrier was the main difficulty in his Social Work units. He estimates that out of a cohort of around 100 students, there were four or five men. “It was probably the biggest gender disparity I’ve seen out of any other unit I’ve done at university by far.” He thinks the feeling of being an outsider came partly from the assumption that he wouldn’t contribute appropriately during discussions on gendered issues.
When his class was discussing domestic violence from an academic standpoint, and they acknowledged that women are far more likely to be victims of domestic violence than men, a man in the class started arguing it was a problem to look at it that way because men are also victims of domestic violence. “Just this weird ‘men are important too’ argument,” Louis describes. The other people in his class were “put off” by the comment and “people did look at me, like, as another guy in the class to see if I would have the same view, but then when I spoke, obviously I didn’t, and I think people kind of accepted that.”
Tom agrees about the nature of class discus- sions, noting that early conversations surrounding the type of media consumed by students in the course were often focused on “more female oriented culture” in television, such as shows like Girls. Further, when more male-oriented shows such as Game of Thrones were mentioned, the discussions revolved around a feminist perspective, addressing the representation of women or critiques of the male gaze in media.
However, as he commented that male-oriented shows like Game of Thrones and Mad Men were discussed in some depth, he stopped to think. “Maybe it’s just the experience of actually having female-oriented media talked about that makes it feel like it’s skewed towards women.”
By contrast, Sophie is a female Bachelor of Design Computing student, who feels a similar need to prove herself to the men in her degree. This was worse when she was younger. “In high school, whenever I was talking about tech topics I felt the need to say everything I knew to validate myself.” Now she still feels worried about speaking up when she doesn’t understand something in her course. “I’m conscious that I think I sound like a stupid little girl who doesn’t know anything.”
Sophie feels very included in her degree, despite being a woman in a sometimes hostile, male-dominated field, which she attributes to studying computer design rather than programming. In her degree “the men are a lot more welcoming of women and very, kind of, conscious that they don’t just talk about masculine topics… I find that people make a lot more effort to be socially conscious of everyone, rather than in the Faculty of IT where they are themselves and you have to fit in with that [masculine] environment.”
Louis identifies future employment as a concrete example of when men can be excluded. “You’re told, for example in domestic violence, that as a man, you will never work in that area in a face-to-face capacity,” due to the overwhelming majority of domestic violence victims being women. However, in the end he believes that he still would have been more advantaged than disadvantaged by his gender in job seeking. “To be honest, I feel like that kind of stuff just doesn’t outweigh the already big disadvantage that women have to men in finding jobs and pay,” he reflects.
Tom agrees to some extent. He estimates that, of people he sees in the media, “it’s close to a 50-50 split, but probably leaning towards the male side,” although studies would suggest that female representation in the media is much lower than 50 per cent. When I ask if he thinks it would be hard to get a job as a male in the media, he concludes “the fears of not getting a job because of the limited market [in media] outweigh the fears of not getting a job because I’m a man”. John, by contrast, believes that “There’s always a need for more nurses, both female and male”. As a result, he doesn’t think his gender will be a factor in his ability to get a job.
Men, if anything, are seen as vital to providing balance in many female-dominated areas, such as nursing or education. Women, on the other hand, are often overlooked. “If I was going into a corporate environment I would be very worried about how I’d be perceived as a woman… because you have to wear the right heels and like the right skirt or something, but you can’t be having children, or stuff like that,” Sophie says. In contrast, she believes technology start-ups provide a much more welcoming environment, because “they’re much more individual and humanistic, and more understanding of who you are as a person”.
Just as we’re about to dig into some pizza and I stop taking notes, Tom pauses, and sums up the experience of being a man in a female dominated degree. “At the end of the day, if being in this degree is the only time in my life that I feel marginalised because of my gender, you know, I don’t have much to complain about, do I?”