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Presentation. “Masculinities” Challenged in Light of “Feminine” Occupations

Marie Buscatto et Bernard Fusulier
p. 1a-19a
Cet article est une traduction de :
Présentation. Les “masculinités” à l’épreuve des métiers “féminins” [fr]

Texte intégral

1With regard to many social practices, from those involving culture and family to sports and clothing, contemporary research finds relatively fixed gendered associations – not at all the sort of equality and diversity one would consider ideal. Professional practices are no exception : horizontal gendered segregation, which recognizes certain jobs as “men’s” and others as “women’s”, remains deeply entrenched in Western societies.

  • 1 Figures and percentages drawn from the Key figures document. Equality between men and women – Editi (...)

2Taking France alone, we see that half of all jobs performed by women (50.6%) are concentrated in 12 of 67 occupational categories : teachers, maintenance services, administrative work for public agencies, household help and domestic service, home health care aides, secretaries, nurses and midwives, child care help, administrative work for businesses, help for accountants, accounting, administrative services, finance and sales. 77.5% of jobs in these categories (on average) are held by women, and the total numbers are quite large. The top 12 occupational categories for men’s jobs comprise only 35.7% of the total number – categories like non-specialized construction labor, IT engineers, or qualified maintenance services – and the average raw number is 218,000 jobs1. Occupations that are not consi­dered markedly gendered are still rare : only about ten occupational cate­gories show a more or less balanced male-female division (between 40 and 60%), and these categories described as shared or “paritaires” include only about 12% of total jobs (Meron/Mahrez/Viney, 2006). Such hori­zon­tal segregation has not been eliminated in the twenty years since the “normalization” of education for young women, which was intended to have such an effect, despite many policies and a great deal of discourse in­tended to favor occupational equality between men and women (Meron/Omalek/Ulrich, 2009).

3Occupational areas considered “feminine” not only include a large majority of women, but are also associated with so-called “feminine” traits (Perrot, 1987) – the ability to listen, caring for others, emotional ex­pression or a particular aesthetic quality. Occupational areas associated with men are largely associated with traits that by definition are supposed to be “masculine” (Connell, 1995) – assertiveness, technical ability, the ability to reason, and physical strength. Clearly, the naturalist argument still carries weight despite having been deconstructed by sociologists, an­thropologists and historians working on gender relationships and social relations involving gender.

4A very rich scholarly literature has identified a variety of cross-cutting mechanisms that limit attempts by females to enter, remain in, and get promoted in “men’s” occupations, but also transgressive strategies that enable some women to break through in a partial but real manner in the early 21st century (Acker, 2009 ; Buscatto/Marry, 2009). On another hand studies of young and middle-aged men who enter occupations considered “women’s” are far fewer in number.

5Some contemporary research can be seen as continuing the foundational work of Christine L. Williams (1989, 1993), which described the pheno­menon of the “glass escalator” (1992), the male correspondent to the glass ceiling encountered by women in certain occupations (Hymowitz/Schell­hardt, 1986), and this more recent work suggests that men who work in occupations considered women’s jobs are actually more favored than the women in the same occupation as regards the progress of their career paths (Cognard-Black, 2004 ; Couppié/Epiphane, 2008 ; Hultin, 2003), the division of tasks that are part of the job (Angeloff/Arborio, 2002 ; Sny­der/Green, 2008), interaction with clients, the hierarchy, and relations with colleagues and patients (Kauppinen-Toropainen/Lammi, 1993). This re­search suggests on the other hand the possibility of stigmatization – suspi­cion of homosexuality or a tendency toward sexual predation, professional devaluation or reduced economic gain – associated with a man working in a job considered to be a woman’s job (Bagilhole/Cross, 2002 ; Guichard-Claudic/Kergoat/Vilbrod, 2008 ; Lemarchant, 2007 ; Murcier, 2005 ; Tewksbury, 1993). These negative associations explain in part the relative rarity of men working in so-called women’s jobs, since they seem to generate negative personal, economic and professional consequences, despite the advantageous conditions that men experience in these jobs (in comparison with women in the same job) (Williams, 1989).

  • 2 The rate of feminization varies according to studies in Belgium, but is definitely higher than 80%  (...)

6We will now relate the experience of Jacques, a Belgian nurse, 46 years old, married and the father of four. It shows in a comprehensive manner how gender dynamics and the “glass escalator” can operate when a man works in a “woman’s job”2. The importance of this kind of stereotype is noticeable in his story. Through his testimony, Jacques shows that his gender alone puts him in a favorable position vis-à-vis some other actors (doctors, his chief of service, other colleagues), while it also orients him toward identity-affirming behavior that satisfies expectations associated with men (emphasis on technical competence, managerial aptitude, etc.). Nonetheless, his “masculine” identity lacks assurance in a situation that is asymmetrical, because he is supposed to validate himself continually as a man in a woman’s job, which also involves women that are superior to him hierarchically. He also has to manage relationships with other men, especially with the doctors who symbolically dominate his professional space.

  • 3 This portrait has been produced through research on the experience of the occupation of nurse and o (...)

Jacques, a male nurse working with female nurses : fitting in, respect, making progress and continuing problems3

Jacques is from a family with modest means. This was not his original pro­fessional choice ; he wanted to be a policeman, but he tells us that he failed his medical tests. He listened to his parents and pursued higher education in the area of nursing because it was a course of study that led to a job. After military service, which was «a great handicap because it (nursing) is a wo­man’s profession, and I fell a year behind all the women», he was accepted into a hospital by a female director, his «protector», who was «happy to have a man in the job, to have a little different view of things». With regard to the physicians, «the fact that I was a man, I was really accepted in a diffe­rent way», as opposed to female nurses who were «servants rather than nur­ses. […] And automatically, because I am a man, they treated me more as an equal». He began working in operating rooms and specialized in technical tasks. After only a few years he became the nurse in charge of certain tech­nical equipment, «because it’s true, women are not as apt to take up tech­nical things […] For women, it was off-putting, especially when the cameras came in ; videotaping the operations was something I enjoyed doing». Doctors, «trained to do operations, but not to handle technical equipment», needed his help. His «chief of service», who was older, «was a little slow on the uptake». Jacques had a certain leverage in this situation, and was even able to «work when I wanted to» so he could take care of his youngest daughter («I really wanted to take care of her, and so I needed a day off every week»). When his daughter was old enough, he followed the advice of his (female) director who saw him as a «team leader», and applied for the job of night shift coordinator, a post that had just been created. He got the job and a shift bonus («night shifts are paid at 150% of day rate»). His schedule became one week of night shifts followed by a week off, which he considered a «dream schedule». In his words, he became an «in­formal leader» recognized by others, but although «I had more and more importance, it was frustrating, finally, not to have the status». In addition, «I needed to get out of this woman’s job». «I had more and more difficulty working among so many women, whose way of doing things was so diffe­rent». He mentioned in this regard a problem posed by gossip and backbi­ting among (female) «friends», and also the necessity of taking orders from doctors, etc., things that were difficult for him to accept as a man. He was shown «respect by doctors. I was invited to their private residences». For him, «the women worked on emotion, my co-workers would cry […], there were operations involving prematurely born infants, and I saw my co-workers cry when they saw the babies. I didn’t feel that way at all». None­theless, despite this overt masculine reaction, Jacques also exhibited a great fragility. Entering nursing studies had been difficult for him because as a boy of 12 he had had «severe skin problems», so much so that a «professor at the pool, for example, didn’t want me to swim because he was afraid I would contaminate the water». «This experience was awful, and so when I began studying nursing that memory was in my thoughts. I came into a job where all the co-workers were women, and I had the feeling that when they looked at me, they only saw my scars, and…it was awful. I went to my parents’ home, and I said, «I feel more and more ill at ease with just women around me’ ; you know, I began to feel closed in». Because of Jacques’ «big voice like a singer», and because of his «very tough-looking face», «people were afraid». Although his physical traits had played a part in his becoming a respected worker and obtaining a job with some responsibility attached to it, he did not want to be reduced to those traits. He began singing in earnest, participating in the hospital «cabaret», and playing in «a lot of sketches». From that point, «I had the opportunity to gain respect for the job I had been given, and also to become friendly with almost everyone because I was the «host» of the cabaret […]. Being an emcee, being a night shift coordinator, with that I felt really appreciated». Unfortunately, «things changed a lot in terms of the atmosphere. Our workplace became like a commercial compa­ny». His director «was forced out», and because of this Jacques «was afraid» that he would «lose his protection». Eventually the new director would also demonstrate to him that he was needed, but even now, he feels that he is «very ill at ease in this profession». He feels that he is «under pressure to perform». For the nurses «who are really doing this job because it’s what they wanted to do», the situation is unbearable. Jacques himself feels less concerned : «I wasn’t like them […]. I liked technical things, and here I’m not in management anymore». He was offered a different job, but he turned it down because «I want to keep my five days off per week» (referring to his schedule mentioned above, in which a week of night shifts is followed by a week off). «I have reached the occupational niche I wanted for myself». He has become «very Epicurean» : since he has had «the bad luck to lose two colleagues at work», now «we live for today, we take advantage of what we have, it restores us, it’s like a vacation trip».

7The account of Jacques’ experience as a male nurse is not something that can serve as the basis for generalizations, but it does illustrate a num­ber of social mechanisms that impact the progress of a man in a “feminine” professional context. There are advantages to holding an atypi­cal position, a rhetoric that justifies the advantages given to men, a certain fragilization of masculinity, strategies to counter stigmatization, and cer­tain structural conditions that favor the entry of men into “feminine” occu­pations.

8Throughout this issue, our objective is to display and explain such mechanisms in order to enrich and systematize our knowledge of the conditions and processes associated with the entry of men into so-called “feminine” professions or occupations in Western countries in the early 21st century, and also with their continuance, development and identity construction in such occupations. We will present seven empirical case studies from France, Switzerland, Italy and the United States - French striptease dancers, Swiss florists, French midwives, Italian dancers, Ame­rican entrepreneurs and French marriage counselors and speech therapists – this issue is an occasion for us to ask questions in new ways about the social modalities of employment, employee development, promotion and legitimation of men in professional spaces that are considered to be “femi­nine”, and also about the ways in which men develop an acceptable “mas­culine” identity for themselves and for others.

I. The Advantages of an Atypical Position : Enriching the Metaphor of the “Glass Escalator”

9From the time of the first research that studied men in “feminine” pro­fessional areas, it has been apparent that men largely benefit from being a minority in these areas (Williams, 1989, 1992). Subsequent research con­centrating on different occupations and occupational groups has only con­firmed this comparative advantage (Lupton, 2006). Men intend to profit from the “glass escalator” (Williams, 1992). Their career paths tend on average to be more favorable than those of their female colleagues. In addition, they obtain positions of authority more often. Their professional reputation is often higher. It is easier for them to get themselves assigned to tasks or specializations that are more highly valued. Their pay tends to be better. Many of the cases studied in this issue - the Swiss florists (Le­feuvre/Zinn), the Italian dancers (Bassetti) and those speech therapists and marriage and family counselors from France (Bretin/Philippe) – are no exception.

10The reasons for this are complex and difficult to distinguish. We do not pretend to have identified all of them, but we would like nonetheless to exhibit a few of them, which seem to us to be sufficiently specific with regard to the subject at hand. First off, the professional advantage of men in comparison with women is not unrelated to the gendered division of productive and reproductive work and work/family interference (Fusulier, 2012). The traditional model of “male-breadwinner/female-caregiver” has not been replaced by that of the “dual-earner/dual-caregiver” (Crompton, 1999). In other words, reconciling work and family continues to be more of a problem for women than for men (Périvier/Silvera, 2010). Converse­ly, according to a thesis stated by François de Singly (1987) that has become classic, the “good fortune” of husbands and fathers is due to the presence of a spouse that places her educational, economic and relational resources primarily at the disposal of the goal of success for her husband and her children. The corresponding situation for husbands and fathers would simply be to succeed, which demands from them a significant in­vestment in their occupation or profession. For example, some of the Swiss florists interviewed by Nicky Lefeuvre and Isabelle Zinn in this issue justify putting men in better positions than women in their business by observing that they can commit more completely to the job than wo­men, who often prefer to work part-time for family reasons.

11In addition, in professional situations in general, men tend to benefit from sexual stereotypes that make it easier for them to be recognized at work and succeed. Authority, expertise and rationality, qualities that are socially constructed as “masculine” are more likely to be attributed to them by their colleagues, their bosses and their clients (Williams, 1989 ; Pringle, 1993). Thus they are put in a position to construct ascending career paths more often than their female colleagues, and it is easier for them to get themselves placed in positions of responsibility or assigned to more highly valued tasks.

12Men, more often than women, still tend to dissociate themselves clearly from specialties and or abilities connected with their jobs that are conside­red to be “feminine” among functions exercised to revindicate more “mas­culine” dimensions ; this was the case with US male nurses (Sny­der/Green, 2008), men working in service jobs and in hospital jobs in France (Angeloff/Arborio, 2002), male “midwives” studied by Philippe Charrier (in this issue) and male secretaries observed by Rosemary Pringle in the United States in the late 1980s (Pringle, 1993). The latter succeeded so well at getting out of “feminine” tasks (incidentally the least valued tasks) that even their job titles ended up being changed to something like “administrative assistant” or “assistant to the director”.

13A fourth reason put forward has to do with the desire admitted by a majority of men to take their distance from the “feminine” aspects of a job, which they may judge to be demeaning - that is, aspects that are liable to make people look at them as effeminate, or that might make people think of them as gay or pedophilic, of lower social recognition. This prac­tice can result directly in a higher professional and economic valuation for men, as in the case of the abovementioned Swiss florists, who by “cho­osing” full-time work set themselves apart from the women who were more likely to prefer part-time work, and thus opened up for themselves more favorable professional and economic opportunities.

14The comparative analysis of the situation of speech therapists and mar­riage and family counselors in France presented here by Hélène Bretin and Claudine Philippe is a good example of this phenomenon. These “happy minorities” in fact clearly appear to benefit from a number of advantages connected with their atypical position in these two occupational groups (only 4% of speech therapists and 10% of marriage and family counselors are men). From the beginning in training courses for these professions, men report being welcomed in a particularly favorable manner by female instructors, by fellow students who are female, and by the women who will supervise their training internships. Men in these positions are often asked how they are doing and, commanding interest, these men experience the advantages of visibility, although sometimes they feel too visible (and as such, uncomfortable). As they work, their advantages are still apparent, although now there are specific difficulties that are also in evidence. Their entry into the profession is received in a positive manner by female colleagues, who also tend to look to them for authority-related behaviors assumed to have something to do with being “masculine” (maintaining order, calming difficult patients…).

15Patients also seem to be more easily convinced by professional opinions expressed by men, and are even likely to call male nurses “doctor” in hospitals. Being a man appears to be perceived by patients, the hierarchy and colleagues as something favorable to the professional practice of these two occupations. Again, men are proportionally over-represented in pro­fessional associations connected to these professions, and they are more likely than women to work in exacting specializations or those more high­ly valued on a technical level. Gendered associations, as perceived by self or by others, not only work here to foster favorable career paths for men, but to provide “naturalized” reasons that claim to legitimate those more favorable paths. There are some particular difficulties : fear of being thought to be gay or pedophilic led male speech therapists to develop “neutralizing” practices aimed at protecting their professional reputations. But these problems did not take away the advantage of being in a “dominant minority” situation, the one pertaining to a man in an occupation dominated by women, both in terms of numbers and in terms of social perception.

16We note nonetheless that this issue – and the existing literature – does not help us to distinguish one masculine career path from another, in terms of social origin, ethnic origin, sexual orientation or educational back­ground. As Wingfield (2009) showed, in a pioneering study of black male nurses in the United States, this group was confronted with specific handi­caps connected to their skin color, and these prevented them from benefi­ting from the “glass escalator” effect, as opposed to their white colleagues, who did benefit from that effect. We can easily imagine that differences may exist between groups of men with regard to their ability to take advantage of the role of “happy minority”, differences having to do with their (favorable or unfavorable) social position or educational background. The situation recalls the case of students from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in France, who were found to have a far greater chan­ce than men with any other educational background to become mathema­tics professors at the University ; but the probability for men from any other educational background was roughly equivalent to the probability for women educated at the École Normale Supérieure, and the probability for women from any other educational background was much lower than the probability for any group of men and also lower than the probability for all women educated at the École Normale Supérieure (Zarca, 2006).

II. Forms of Rhetoric that Attempt to Legitimate Masculine “Advantages”

17Men appear to benefit from certain advantages in professional practice, and as regards career paths in the female-dominated occupations we have examined, but they have also developed forms of rhetoric that are intended to justify these advantages and to legitimate them, as regards their self perception and as regards the perceptions of others. Even if it is difficult to know how these rhetorics of justification are constructed, men are in effect complicit in the production of processes of legitimation with regard to their gendered professional advantages.

18The case of Swiss florists is particularly instructive. Lefeuvre and Zinn demonstrate by means of statistics the very low percentage of men in that occupation (only 6% of Swiss florists are men), and also their relative advantages (over-representation in professional associations, better pay and professional recognition in comparison with women, the latter being connected with their proportionally higher representation as directors of businesses that sell flowers or as independent businessman, and their proportionally higher representation in the group of full-time workers). These men deny that there is any gendered difference between men and women in the appointment of the skills that pertain to a florist or in the organization of daily work ; but on another hand they do claim that “natu­ral” gender-related differences legitimate their advantageous professional situation. They explain their comparatively greater success as the uninten­ded result of an unequal division of tasks and responsibilities within fami­lies in accordance with the traditional model of “man-breadwinner, woman-caregiver” ; but statistics only partly confirm their “essentialist” affirmations. Since there is less evidence for men “choosing” this occupa­tion, those who do choose it say that they are more determined to suc­ceed ; and they give this as a reason for their greater success in compare­son with woman florists. Conversely, when it is a matter of accounting for skills used on the job and qualities that enable one to do the job well, gen­dered differences are no longer cited. Even though the main quality prized in florists – creativity or flair – is constructed as “feminine” in this occu­pation, men define it as neutral with regard to gender, and describe it as something that constitutes a personal talent. Along the same lines, the division of tasks is said not to follow a gender-based logic, even though florists clearly distinguish between clients, in accordance with their tastes and expectations, in a manner that is gender-related. Work experience and the requirements of an organization are described as structural elements, and it is claimed that gender is not a factor in the assignment of tasks to men or women.

19A similar rhetoric of legitimation of professional advantages among French male midwives is presented here by Philippe Charrier, and it is similar to the rhetoric that French speech therapists and marriage and family counselors used when interviewed by Hélène Bretin and Claudine Philippe. Something similar was also shown by Elisa Herman (2007) with regard to men and women in France who worked in recreation centers. The desire on the part of young men to avoid accusations of pedophilia appears to justify the practice of letting women do some of the most dis­tasteful jobs, such as changing babies’ diapers and accompanying children to the bathroom. But this unequal division of labor is all the more effective in social terms because it is supported by an ideology of complementarity that attributes to women a greater tolerance and greater “natural” aptitude for “caregiving” – thus justifying the socially undesirable tasks that go along with this caregiving.

III. Fragile “Masculinity”

20Men enjoy many professional advantages in comparison with their female colleagues, but they are nonetheless subject to certain professional risks and identity-related confusions, which go a long way toward explain­ning the rarity of men in the professional areas we have been discussing, despite the a priori advantages we have identified. As Williams put it, with respect to male nurses in the United States :

It is not discrimination that keeps men out of nursing ; it is men’s reluctance to enter a ‘feminine-identified’ occupation that keeps them out (Williams, 1989 :140).

21This observation has been confirmed by recent studies of temporary secretaries in the United States (Henson/Rogers, 2001), activity directors in recreation centers (Herman, 2007), British librarians, stewards, school­teachers and nurses (Simpson, 2004), and also by studies of British men working in a range of “feminine” professional areas (Bagilhole/Cross, 2002). Fear of being thought to be gay, possible social and professional devaluation and questioning of men's ability to hold a “real” job - these are negative aspects that affect men working in “feminine” jobs.

22The various cases examined in this issue confirm in fact that “masculi­nity” is a problem for those who work in a “feminine” job : the fear of being thought effeminate, or of being perceived as a sexual pervert, or of generating a perception of professional incapacity (the inability to get a “real” job) - all these things menace the masculine “essence” of these men without letup. The Italian dancers (Bassetti), the male midwives (Char­rier), the striptease dancers (Blum) and the speech therapists and marriage and family counselors (Bretin/Philippe) have significant concerns in this regard, and the men who “stay in it just the same” find active strategies that help them reinforce their threatened masculinity.

23This is what Virginie Blum was trying to explain in her observation of French male striptease dancers who perform for an audience of women. These young men, most of whom come from humble backgrounds, follow a career path that is often quite precarious. They work as strippers for short periods of time, earning money to help them continue to work in other occupations, in which their employment may also be unstable. They are recruited informally in weight training centers because of their physi­cal characteristics. They are chosen because they match a popular and do­minant image of “masculinity” : big muscles, certain kinds of posing, cer­tain stereotyped costumes (fireman, Indian, policeman, etc.). But behind every stereotyped presentation of their exemplary masculinity there is a potential for fragility, as regards the dancers themselves, and also as regards their female audiences. For one thing, they use certain “feminine” techniques when preparing their routines - they shave off body hair, they use perfumes and skin creams, etc. - and these practices may be accompa­nied by a symbolic devaluation of their virility. On another hand, the fact that they display their bodies in front of women who regard them as sexual objects, and the fact that they do this for money, places them a priori in a subordinate position relative to the women, and also puts them at some risk of being considered gay by other men. The dancers have certain means of reversing these negative perceptions and of affirming their threatened masculinity, but the very act of striptease dancing still puts their “masculinity” at risk in a constant manner. Choosing to have sexual relations with some of their clients, or making a point of uncea­singly asserting their “masculine” mental qualities – power and self-mastery – are thus two strategies regularly used by men working in this occupation to protect themselves against being thought to be gay and against the symbolic devaluation that may accompany working in such a “feminine” job.

IV. Strategies Intended to Prevent Men Working in “Feminine” Jobs from Being Perceived as Feminine themselves

24Faced with potential challenges to their “masculinity”, men working in a so-called “feminine” professional area have certain resources. They have developed collective and individual strategies intended to ward off any stigmatization associated with their jobs (Goffman, 1963). Although in­quiries have found these strategies themselves to be fragile, and that they are not very successful at fostering the construction of a legitimately “other” masculinity, their very existence is testimony to the fact that they are considered successful by the people who employ them, who have deci­ded to work in a “feminine” job, and to continue working in that job des­pite threats to their “masculinity”.

25One strategy, already mentioned in connection with Swiss florists (Le­feuvre/Zinn) and observed at work among male midwives (Charrier) is a simple denial of the “feminine” nature of their professional activity. Making up floral bouquets and helping women give birth are activities that are redefined by these men as “neutral”, that is, occupations that can be engaged in equally by women or men. The “feminine” character of a particular job is thought of as an arbitrary social construction and as such rejected by male florists and male midwives. This strategy is also em­ployed by immigrant men who work as housekeepers or home health care aides in France and Italy (Scrinzi, 2010).

26A second strategy consists in making one's occupation look more mas­culine by attributing “masculine” qualities to it, thus removing it from the sphere of the “feminine” : thus Italian dancers point to their virtuosity (Bassetti), male midwives point to their technical skill (Charrier) and male florists point to their ability to manage a flower shop (Lefeuvre/Zinn). We find here the same strategy employed by temporary secretaries in the Uni­ted States, who redefine their own jobs by establishing a relationship between what they did and particular “masculine” technical and relational skills (Henson/Rogers, 2001) or by male kindergarten teachers who clai­med to do their jobs in a “masculine” way, supposedly different from that practiced by their female colleagues (Jaboin, 2008). Such claims can so­metimes lead men to claim that they are better professionals than their female colleagues (Bagilhole/Cross, 2002 ; Scrinzi, 2010).

27Still another strategy consists in reversing the relation of subordination that may appear to be an integral part of a “feminine” job. The striptease dancers observed by Blum said that they were working in a job that suited them, since a high value was placed upon their physical characteristics, and the job gave them a good opportunity to stay in shape - and also because they claimed they were able to choose sexual partners who plea­sed them, but only when they cared to! Male secretaries in the United States (Pringle, 1993 ; Henson/Rogers, 2001) avoided any relation of evi­dent subordination with their superiors that brought them into contact with their female colleagues.

28One more method of warding off stigmatization is to accept it as an “other” form of “masculinity”, a different way of being a man. In this way, certain British hairstylists made fun of their own occupations, parodying feminine behavior while at the same time affirming their own masculinity, colored, but not altered, by “femininity” (Hall/Hockey/Ro­binson, 2011). Some British men interviewed by Bagilhole and Cross said that they were expressing a “feminine” side whose existence they admitted – emotional, focused on others, good at listening – even if such traits seem to indicate their distance from a more traditional “hegemonic” masculinity (Connell, 1995). Even though their affirmations and practices may only have been accepted in part by the people around them, these practices nonetheless allowed them to assume a renewed masculine identity that they themselves could accept, one that contained “feminine” traits, but in a manner that was legitimate in their eyes.

29Let us discuss in more precise terms the case of Italian dancers studied in this issue by Chiara Bassetti. In choosing this occupation, the dancers are continually confronted with the double stigmatization of effeminacy and homosexuality, two things that have been associated with male dan­cers of a certain type in contemporary societies since the late 19th century. This double suspicion is so difficult to manage socially that it even affects the possibility of dancing for boys of a young age (see the film by Stephen Daldry, “Billy Elliot”) ; most professional dancers encountered began dan­cing in late adolescence, most often in an “involuntary” manner, in con­nection with some other practice (the theater for example) or some exter­nal incitation (friends doing hip hop dances). Boys who start dancing early are cruelly mocked and disrespected. But the men who become professsio­nal dancers take the bitter with the sweet, and make use of numerous “an­tidotes” in order to adopt, in individual and collective terms, a highly transgressive behavior. One strategy, collectively constructed, consists in playing up the activity as something in itself masculine. Dancing by men tends to be defined as an artistic endeavor, based on creativity and talent, and these qualities help male dancers get past being stigmatized as effemi­nate. Dancing also tends to be defined by some people as similar to athle­tics, and dancers play up the athletic ability implied in certain steps, and the control of one’s body that is required to execute them. Thus dancing is “masculinized”, and certain traits are played up in order to eliminate, as far as possible, the “feminizing” traits that make dancing a graceful and elegant activity. A third, more individualized strategy consists in dancing in accordance with particular styles that are considered “masculine” (such as hip hop), or in accordance with mixed styles that may incorporate some aspects of contemporary artistic dance. Costuming and choreography also have ways of using “masculine” dance moves in order to get as far as pos­sible from the image of the classical ballerina and her rose-colored tutu.

V. Structural Conditions that Work in Favor of some Men who Accept “Feminine” Jobs

30How can we understand in sociological terms the fact that some men take “women’s” jobs despite the identity-related difficulties that ensue ? How can we explain such atypical “choices” from the point of view of men ? This issue goes further in the direction of existing work (Lupton, 2006) while offering a more nuanced understanding of the structural con­ditions that exist that favor certain men who accept “feminine” jobs (which may eventually amount to a masculinization of a particular job, if the structural conditions become generally applicable).

31On one hand “feminine” jobs can attract men with social or economic profiles belonging to a lower stratum, including low-value social charac­teristics – homosexuality, the “wrong” skin color, or being a foreigner. Such men can see in these particular jobs a source of employment that is better than nothing, at least ; and at the other end of the spectrum they may consider these jobs as a means of attaining a level of professional status that would have been unlikely or impossible for them in the world of men, or in mixed-gender occupations. This reason for taking such jobs is given by male immigrants who work as housekeepers or as home health care aides in France or Italy ; Scrinzi says «my data suggest that migrant men do these jobs because of a lack of choice connected with their migrant status» (2010 :60). Along the same lines, male strippers in France, studied by Virginie Blum, are often young men from relatively poor families, with poor job prospects, who see stripping as an assured way to make money and who consider it a step up the ladder individually. The male midwives observed by Philippe Charrier, few of whom chose that profession as a first orientation, nonetheless reacted to being declared qualified for it through a competition (concours) “despite themselves” and were apparen­tly able to see a professional valorization in exercising the activity.

32The case of the “mannies” (male nannies) presented by Natalie Sapple­ton in this issue indirectly confirms those results through an exploratory study, using questionnaires sent to CEO’s in New York regarding a very “feminine” sector, that of child care. Not only is the vast majority of the personnel employed in this sector female, but even those in the sector who are “self-employed” ; in all other economic sectors in the United States, the vast majority of the self-employed are men. The study in fact shows that men in this “feminine” occupation are likely to be members of a minority who perceive themselves as being discriminated against more frequently, for example by their clients, their colleagues or their financial partners, than their opposite numbers in jobs that are “masculine”, or jobs that are not strongly marked in terms of gender. One possible reason for this perception of discrimination (and also, perhaps, for its factual reality) – and this is something the study could not determine – is the concomitant over-representation of persons from lower status ethnic origins (more than 40% in the sample) and also of non-heterosexual men (a majority) among the directors of businesses that employed men in a “feminine” sector. The men studied, because of their sexual orientation and/or their unfavorable or stigmatized social, economic, ethnic or educational characteristics, may see an unexpected source of satisfaction in “feminine” businesses – provi­ding jobs for men in difficulty, holding a higher quality or better paying job – even though they more frequently feel that they were being discrimi­nated against than their opposite number in “masculine” or mixed busi­nesses.

33There is another structural condition that partly explains why some men accept “feminine” jobs, or even transform a “feminine” job into a mixed-gender or “masculine” job, over time : because it is the highest social valuation of the job, at least as concerns some of its segments, which men tend to reappropriate for themselves, beside some of the most innovative women of the given profession. This professional, social and even econo­mic revaluation of a job not only leads some men to accept work in a “feminine” job, but it also makes it possible for them to adapt to the job in a satisfactory and durable manner. Thus historically some “feminine” jobs eventually became “masculine”, such as baking and brewing in Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution (Alice Clark, cited by Bradley, 1993). Another example is the transformation of a groomer “toiletteuse” into an embalmer “thanatopracteur”, which was accompanied by a mas­culinization of that occupational group, in connection with the process by which the job of hygienist was changed by certain technologies, following which the occupation was itself medicalized (Hardy, 2007).

34A similar process took place in relation to men working in the job of midwife in France, as analyzed by Philippe Charrier in this issue, which reveals some of the same dynamics. Men in France were allowed to work in this job beginning in 1985, following the application of a European directive opening up the profession to them. They remain a small minority in the profession, representing only a little less than 2% of the total (2011). Unexpectedly, Philippe Charrier found that they fit into the pro­fesssional context in a rather neutral manner. The division of tasks in the job does not really follow a gendered logic : men tend to value poly­va­lence or installation in “liberal professions” more than their female collea­gues, but the reality concerning practices displays no gender difference. Male and female midwives say that the independence of their profession is of prime importance, as is recognition of their activity as a medical profes­sion. Men are more demonstrative and vocal about this, but the norm is essentially shared by all members of the profession, and thus by the wo­men. As for the construction of a relationship with the woman who is gi­ving birth, if this implies specific efforts on the part of men made neces­sary by their “strangeness” and by their supposed impossible “natural empathy” because they are males, it appears that these efforts are reason­nably similar to the changes taking place in the definition of professional practices in the accompaniment of women by the profession as a whole. Male midwives may define themselves as accompaniers “accompagnants” for mothers to be, or as their “medical practitioners”, but they still tend to define themselves as professionals like other members of the profession (i.e. female midwives) and thus represent one of the evolutions the pro­fesssion is undergoing, which affects women as well as men :

In this specific context the logic of action of these men does not have so much the form of a transgression of professional practices, as that of an implication proper to them, with some differences separating them from female members of their profession, but such that they are still in phase with the future of the profession (Charrier, this issue :108).

35The dynamic of professionalization that affects this occupation, like its medical revaluation, not only allows men to enter the occupation in a relatively neutral manner, but partly explains their positive feeling in rela­tion to their own activity and the way in which it is socially recognized. The profession of midwife cuts away from the prevailing vocational logic and its definition as a “gendered skill”, and thus makes possible an uneventful entry of men into an occupation that is still very female-domi­nated.

36Through the diversity of empirical case studies and the number of coun­tries involved, this issue allows us to deepen, enrich and systematize our knowledge of the social modalities of job entry, job continuation, progres­sion, legitimation and identity-related construction for men in professional areas that are generally considered “feminine”. Although men tend to be favored in workplace situations and on-the-job, in terms of tasks assigned, promotion, rate of pay and valuation of labor, they are no less in a minori­ty position because of stigmatization of various kinds that threatens their “masculinity” – devaluation of persons, negative criticism, doubt cast upon their status as “real” men – all of which go along with their accep­tance of jobs that are considered to be “feminine”. This paradox explains why transgression as we observe it is not usually expressed through an effort to subvert the gendered nature of a profession. Men who accept a job that is considered “feminine” tend to develop strategies to protect their “masculinity”, such as trying to make their job more technical in nature, taking advantage of greater access to jobs with more responsibility, disso­ciation from or rejection of “feminine” characteristics of activities within the profession, etc., all of which certainly tends to neutralize the gendered character of the activity in specific ways, but also to reinforce the gende­red nature of the profession by the distinction between men and women that is at the center of these strategies.

37We may also note a fragilization of the very idea of a natural and coherent “masculinity”, and there are several areas in which this fragility emerges. First, continuing the line of the pioneering work of Connell (1995), the cases we have examined certainly present a diverse range of “masculinities” which vary depending on the social context, the area of activity and the country in which the case study occurs. While ideal-typi­cal characteristics that are supposed to be “masculine” (rationality, force, familiarity with technical matters) or “feminine” (emotion, the ability to listen, elegance) can be defined in an abstract manner, observing them in situ on the other hand readily shows us the diversity of ways in which they are expressed – the “working class” masculinity of a male stripper is not the same thing as the masculinity of the male midwife belonging to the middle class – as well as masculinity’s often mixed character – like the action of a male florist who carries out “feminine” practices such as listening to clients or making up a bouquets of flowers. Following this, and in a more transgressive manner this time, men develop strategies that are intended to affirm their particular form of “masculinity” and avoid the stigmatization that sometimes attaches to men in their position, but they also construct hybrid masculinities by the very fact of performing an acti­vity that is considered “feminine”. “Their” masculinity is in fact some­thing recomposed out of both masculine and feminine characteristics, and so these men appear as atypical figures in a gendered context. Finally, the primary source of stigmatization appears to be the lower valuation ordinarily accorded to feminine jobs, a stigmatization that is symbolic, of course, but also economic. It is possible to think that a revaluation of feminine jobs and feminine skills might lead an increasing number of men to enter those professions, leading to a still more radical re-definition of boundaries between the masculine and feminine as well as a re-definition of the relationships between the supposed gender of a worker and the gendered definition of a job.

38In order that we may perfect our knowledge in this regard, future research would be well advised to refine its analyses by distinguishing, within the population of men and women studied, the diversity of career paths and “masculinities”/”femininities” as a function of social, ethnic or educational origin or background, as well as the sexual orientation and past educational trajectory of the individuals concerned. The studies we have already mentioned of black male nurses in the United States (Wing­field, 2009) and mathematics professors in France (Zarca, 2006) lead us in fact to wonder whether men and women do not just constitute two diffe­rentiated groups, but whether there is also at play differentiations between men, between women, and between men and women, as a function of their specific social characteristics, and in relation to the working conditions and job-seeking conditions they are confronted with in relation to any profession. Such an intersectional approach (class, gender, ethnicity, edu­cational background, territory...) crossed with a sociology of work and professional groups would lead us in the direction of new challenges.

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1 Figures and percentages drawn from the Key figures document. Equality between men and women – Edition 2011, Direction générale de la cohésion sociale, March 2012, p.44.

2 The rate of feminization varies according to studies in Belgium, but is definitely higher than 80% ; see Fusulier B., 2011.

3 This portrait has been produced through research on the experience of the occupation of nurse and on career paths in the profession (see Fusulier B., Moulaert T., 2012).

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Marie Buscatto et Bernard Fusulier, « Presentation. “Masculinities” Challenged in Light of “Feminine” Occupations »Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques, 44-2 | 2013, 1a-19a.

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Marie Buscatto et Bernard Fusulier, « Presentation. “Masculinities” Challenged in Light of “Feminine” Occupations »Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques [En ligne], 44-2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 janvier 2014, consulté le 28 juillet 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Marie Buscatto

Professors of sociology ; I.D.H.E., Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne – Cnrs.

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Bernard Fusulier

Senior researcher for the FNRS and professor of sociology ; Catholic University of Louvain, GIRSEF & CIRFASE.

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