Are gendered university degrees a thing of the past?

May 29, 2015
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Pink for girls, blue for boys. Dolls for her, trucks for him. She’ll be a nurse, he’ll be an engineer. Once upon a time, this was all a given.

But the times, thankfully, are a-changing.

When Dr Jennifer James studied nursing in the late 1980s, the program was mostly made up of young women. In a cohort of 160 bright-eyed, perm-haired hopefuls, about five of her classmates were male – that’s about 3 per cent.

Jennifer is now Senior Lecturer in Nursing at RMIT in Melbourne, where the program consists of about 20 per cent male students. She sees this as a “huge shift”.

“It used to be [seen as] women’s work – it would be degrading for a man to do nursing.”

Twenty-six-year-old footy fanatic Beau Hill is one of Jennifer’s nursing students at RMIT. Beau sees no stigma attached to the profession; in fact, his football teammates feel comforted on the field knowing their mate has medical training.

“Now it’s much more acceptable, [and] people look up to it,” Beau says.

But he acknowledges this hasn’t always been the case.

 It used to be [seen as] women’s work – it would be degrading for a man to do nursing.

When he worked in aged care just a few years ago, Beau found that some elderly female patients were reluctant to have help from a big, buff, male nurse. They were particularly wary of having him assist them with intimate tasks like showering. But Beau found their hesitation faded once they got to know him better.

“The idea of a male nurse doesn’t bother many people now, which is great,” Beau says.

Meanwhile, 24-year-old chemical engineer Jayne Longstaff didn’t consider her gender to be an oddity or an obstacle to her choice of career. In fact, she says, she didn’t give it any thought.

“I think anyone has the same potential.”

Jayne did a double degree in chemical engineering and commerce at the University of Sydney, and graduated in 2013. In high school she loved maths, physics and chemistry, but it was the problem-solving aspect of engineering that appealed to her most.

“Engineering intrigued me because you could take the applied science, but you can actually see the real world solutions out there,” she says.

Work experience on construction sites highlighted the reality of engineering as a male-dominated industry, but apart from that, Jayne experienced a “level playing field” throughout her course.

Now out in the real world, she enjoys working in an area of the industry where she says the gender balance is shifting more quickly than in others – civil engineering, for example, is still very male-dominated.

 There’s no reason why you couldn’t be just as a good an engineer as the person sitting next to you, whether they’re male or female.

Jayne has noticed a lack of senior female management and leadership mentors in her area, and describes the top tier of chemical engineering as “still really male-dominated”.

But her advice for prospective students is optimistic.

“There’s no reason why you couldn’t be just as a good an engineer as the person sitting next to you, whether they’re male or female,” she says.

Notably, student enrolments in study programs don’t necessarily correspond to female and male employee ratios working in particular fields – for example, there are plenty of female directing students in film schools, and many female graduates who go on to work in lower-level positions within the male-dominated film industry. However there are very few women directing feature films in Australia, suggesting women are still bashing their heads against glass ceilings in certain industries.

Jennifer says that in her day, the male students who were enrolled in nursing had their eye on management positions, rather than possessing a desire to pursue “bedside nursing”. Conversely, most of the male nursing students she teaches now are aiming for hands-on nursing roles.

Beau wants to work in surgery or critical care, which would see him placed in a hospital Intensive Care Unit. He sees his chosen profession as practical – the flexible shift work of nursing appeals to him. But it’s also a noble endeavour.

“I just enjoy talking to people [and] helping people,” he says. “It’s pretty simple, I guess.”

He says we’re becoming a much more open-minded society, and advises anyone with an interest in nursing – whether they’re male or female - to give it a go. He cites it as one of the most “satisfying” career choices you can make.

“Society loves us - we’re the most trusted profession in the world.”

Here’s hoping we’re well on our way to becoming a gender-blind world where kids really can grow up to be whatever they want.

Phoebe Hartley

Phoebe makes films, eats dumplings and studies journalism. She tweets sporadically at @phoebehartley.

Image: NASA, Wikimedia Commons