Outnumbered

When I was 16, I started bagging groceries at Shaw’s Supermarket. My awkward-teenager self walked straight into an atmosphere of mostly women working the cash registers, and as shift leaders and managers. Fellow teenagers (mostly female) were my peers in the workplace, but I would be taking orders from them eventually, as well.

But maybe it’s a good thing that until writing this, I didn’t realize how outnumbered I had been, nor had I been at all bitter toward years of being told to mop up a spill in the baby food aisle or empty a bin of smashed glass in the bottle room – a man would have given me the same orders.

At Current Publishing, where I’ve worked as a reporter for two-and-a-half years, men are outnumbered 2-1. The publisher and executive editor are women. The advertising staff is exclusively female. I haven’t heard any complaints.

But how do men really feel when working in a predominantly female setting? On average, probably the same way women feel when outnumbered. As long as the workplace is productive and respectful, the gender tally may go unnoticed.

There are also more extreme examples. A friend of mine recently graduated from the University of Southern Maine’s School of Nursing, and as a man, was willingly walking into a field that is predominantly female.

He told me last week that during classes, his professors seemed to like having male nursing students, perhaps seeing a need for more men to pursue the career.

During an externship this past summer, he was one of two male nurses on a unit of about 25 female nurses, but felt welcomed.

“They were all hoping I would join the unit after graduation,” he told me.

On the other hand, he also said that most female nurses seemed to like having him around for stereotypical reasons – lifting heavy items (or patients) and reaching things in tall cabinets.

He also shared complaints about gossip that permeated through the halls of the unit. He didn’t hold back.

“Women can be vicious creatures at times,” he said, describing a new hire being the victim of backhanded comments from other nurses in the unit – something he called the “hen house.”

But overall, he offered, nursing attracts women with strong personalities who desire responsibility and respect, a mentality that no doubt crosses many professional fields and is sought by both men and women.

For all the “viciousness” he witnessed in the workplace, the same could be said for our gender. I’ve seen two grown men get in a fistfight over which one would deliver a pizza in a snowstorm, the equivalent of fighting over a couple extra dollars of tip money, and the possibility of a car accident.

I’ve also seen line cooks and delivery drivers repeatedly hit on waitresses. (A universal norm, some might say.) But, I seem to recall a few timely staff meetings covering the subject of sexual harassment that followed.

There will also always be misconceptions about who’s in charge. My wife told me recently that while working as a waitress at a local diner, there was a middle-aged male waiter among the mostly twentysomething female wait staff. She said customers consistently assumed the older male waiter was the boss or owner of the restaurant.

The feeling of being outnumbered in the workplace, however, may hinge on the type of job or an individual’s own past experiences. For every likeminded guy who may not notice, another could be yearning for more testosterone-fueled workplace chat.

It could also hinge on age. At 28, I admittedly don’t remember the smoke-filled newsrooms of the 1960s, or the misogynist, albeit fictional, workplace norms shown on period television shows like “Mad Men.” And for all my jobs working with a female boss, each has been older than me by at least 20 years. (This includes my mother-in-law, who I’ve worked for at an inn during the summer. And no, it’s never been bad, despite what you’re thinking.)

Maybe that’s why I always genuinely listened and learned from these women – simply because they knew more than I did.

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