Gender stereotypes in the workplace | Hidden Brain Annie Duke was about to win $2 million. It was 2004, and she was at the final hand of the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions. But as a woman at a table full of men, she wasn't sure she deserved to be there. In this week's Radio Replay, we tell the stories of two people who grappled with gender stereotypes on the job. Annie Duke shares her experiencing at the World Series of Poker, and then we hear the story of Robert Vaughan, a former Navy sailor who decided to pursue a new career as a nurse.

Radio Replay: Playing The Gender Card

Radio Replay: Playing The Gender Card

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Mitch Blunt/Getty Images/Ikon Images
Playing The Gender Card
Mitch Blunt/Getty Images/Ikon Images

Annie Duke was about to win $2 million.

It was 2004, and she was at the final hand of the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions. Annie had beaten some of the best poker players in the world — all men — to get to this point.

But she wasn't sure she deserved to be there.

"I'm sort of thinking, if I fold and I'm wrong, everybody's going to be like, 'See, she plays like a girl, look how he pushed her around,' " said Annie.

This week we tell the stories of two people who grapple with gender stereotypes on the job. In the first part of the show, Annie Duke takes us through her experiencing competing at the 2004 World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions.

Later in the program, we hear the story of Robert Vaughan, a former Navy sailor who decides to pursue a new career as a nurse.

"The first thing that went through my head was, well, that's a woman's job," Robert said. "That's not something that, really, men go into."

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu, Laura Kwerel, and Camila Vargas-Restrepo. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.


This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We begin today in Las Vegas. The year - 2004. The scene - a high-stakes poker game. Our protagonist is a woman named Annie Duke. She's about to win $2 million.


PHIL HELLMUTH: I'm all-in.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: And with that top pair, Phil Hellmuth is going all-in with his 450,000 thousand chips. Annie Duke put the pressure on Phil when she check-raised him.

VEDANTAM: This was the final hand of the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions.

ANNIE DUKE: They had these incredible hall-of-fame players like Doyle Brunson, who was a hall-of-famer, Johnny Chan, who was a hall-of-famer, and then Phil Hellmuth, who has the most championships of anyone in the history of the World Series of Poker. And then there was me.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Annie calls the all-in.

HELLMUTH: (Expletive).

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: And Phil sees what he's up against.

VEDANTAM: Annie and this guy, Phil, were the last two at the table.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: And Annie is overcome with emotion seeing how close she is to winning this championship.

VEDANTAM: Annie's crying. Phil's standing up, pacing back-and-forth. The dealer's laying out the cards that will determine who wins.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Annie has control of this hand. Now here comes the turn. It's a seven - no help for Phil.

VEDANTAM: Annie was the only woman in this competition. She had knocked out eight guys - eight of the best players in the world - to get to this point.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Annie Duke is now one card away from $2 million.

DUKE: But I didn't really feel like I deserved to be at that table.


VEDANTAM: At that moment, Annie Duke was feeling the pressure of something that psychologists call stereotype threat. Here's how it works. Let's say you think people have a certain stereotype about you. There's a part of you that's afraid that your actions and behavior will prove the stereotype is true.

DUKE: I'm sort of thinking about, well, if I fold and I'm wrong, everybody's going to be like, see, she plays like a girl. Like, look how he pushed her around.

VEDANTAM: But Annie's story is also about a second idea, one that often has a positive outcome. This idea is called stereotype tax. That's when a stereotype that others have about you works to your advantage.

DUKE: If somebody was at the table who was so emotionally invested in the fact that I was a woman, given that they're treating me that way, how can I come up with the best strategy to take their money because I guess, in the end, isn't that the best revenge?

VEDANTAM: Annie had started playing poker in 1994. By the time she got to that championship game 10 years later, she had basically figured out how to make stereotypes about women in poker work for her.

DUKE: So I can tell you that the first year that I played in the World Series of Poker Main Event, which was in 1994, 3 percent of the entrants were women. And last year, that number would've been the same.

VEDANTAM: Wow. So this is an extraordinarily male-dominated sport?

DUKE: Completely. I was generally the only woman at the table. I had to really love that game in order to be willing to expose myself to a lot of the behavior that I was experiencing.

VEDANTAM: Tell me what you heard. What did people say?

DUKE: There were people who were incredibly welcoming. There were other people - you know, there was one guy who I lost a pot to, and he said, don't cry, I'll give you your money back if we go across the street to the Northern, and the Northern was a hotel.


DUKE: You know, and I got called a lot of bad things. But to think about it as, OK, given that this person is viewing me in a way that I find disrespectful, try to separate yourself from your emotional reaction to that, and think about how you can use that to your advantage.

VEDANTAM: Annie had learned to make her opponents pay - literally pay - for the stereotypes they held about women.

DUKE: Right. At the poker table, for example, I sort of, in my head, divided people into three categories. One was the flirting chauvinist, and that person was really viewing me in a way that was sexual.

VEDANTAM: And not as blatantly as the guy who invited her back to the great Northern Hotel. These were just guys who sometimes seemed more concerned about getting Annie to like them than they were about winning.

DUKE: And, like, they'd show me their whole cards when they were done with the hand to show me whether it was a good fold or not. They'd kind of tell me during the hand, if I was alone with them in the hand, you know, what they had.

VEDANTAM: They were trying to make nice with you.

DUKE: They were trying to make nice with me, exactly. I never did go out on a date with any of them, but, you know, it was kind of flirtatious at the table, and I could use that to my advantage.


VEDANTAM: Then there's a second kind of guy.

DUKE: What I would call the disrespecting chauvinist, who mainly just thought that women weren't creative, that they could only think one level deep. So they didn't believe that you knew how to bluff, for example, because that's a level deep in your thinking. They didn't think that you really had creativity. They thought you were very straightforward in the way that you play because, you know, you're a girl.

VEDANTAM: Right. So they assume that you are naive, basically.

DUKE: Exactly. So there are strategies that you can use against them. Mainly, you can bluff those people a lot.

VEDANTAM: And then there's a third kind of guy - perhaps the most reckless.

DUKE: The angry chauvinist.

VEDANTAM: This is a guy who would do anything to avoid being beaten by a woman.

DUKE: You couldn't bluff them because they would call you all the time for fear that you might be bluffing them, and then they would also try to push you around a lot. So they would play extremely aggressively against you. They'd be trying to bluff you all the time because the best thing that could happen to them was that they bluffed you, and then they could show you that they had a terrible hand and, like, be like, ha-ha, little girl, look what happened to you.

VEDANTAM: Right, because that would confirm that everything that they believed about you was true.

DUKE: Right. So you can just sort of wait until they - and what I say is, until they would impale themselves on your chips.


VEDANTAM: I have to ask you, though, so it's clear that thinking about this mathematically and in a very detached and unemotional way gave you an edge at the poker table. And I can clearly see how that's very smart. But you're not a robot. You're not a computer.


VEDANTAM: At some level, you also are processing how people actually are behaving toward you. And I'm wondering if you could talk a minute about how this felt.

DUKE: Most of the time, I would sort of say, I have emotions about this. I'm going to set them aside and deal with them later. And then I would leave the table and drive home in tears.


VEDANTAM: In her first 10 years at the poker table, Annie was able to compartmentalize her emotions, and she won a lot of money doing this, using stereotype tax to her advantage - that was, until 2004 at the Tournament of Champions.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Intimidation is such a big part of being a successful player. Is that going to come into play at this table, you think?

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Oh, not really. In fact, these players know each other so well, if one of them sneezes, somebody else has already handed them a handkerchief.


VEDANTAM: Actually, at least for Annie, that wasn't true. She had never played poker on TV before, and she was pretty sure she had been invited as the token woman, that she was way out of her league. She thought that ESPN, televising the game in this way for the first time, just thought it was good optics to have her there.

DUKE: And I went in there with this incredible fear that my play, which was now in front of lipstick cameras - so my mistakes were no longer going to be private to me - that that was going to expose that everybody was right, and I was actually a terrible player and, despite the fact that I had spent the last 10 years making my living playing poker at the highest levels of the game, that I didn't really deserve to have ever won anything. I was bad, and I had just gotten lucky, and now everybody was going to know it, and what they were saying was true.

VEDANTAM: You felt like an imposter.

DUKE: Completely.

VEDANTAM: You were facing a very difficult situation here, which is you're not just juggling with what's happening at the poker table, but you're juggling with all this other psychological crap, in a way, that just makes it hard to focus on what it is that you're actually doing.

And in so many ways, that, to me, is a perfect illustration of stereotype threat. It shows that when there's a stereotype that's in the air, when there's a stereotype that multiple people believe, even if you don't believe it yourself, if you're the person who is potentially at the receiving end of that stereotype, it affects your behavior in such a way that you become more likely to make the stereotype come true.

DUKE: I think that that's completely true. It was always in the back of my mind, like, that - do they really respect me? Why are they talking to me? Is it just because they are thinking about me in a different way, like they want to be friends with me because I'm a girl? Or do they actually respect my play?

VEDANTAM: There was one hand, Annie says, when stereotype threat got the better of her.

DUKE: So in this particular hand, where I had two 10s...

VEDANTAM: Which is a pretty good hand. It was good enough that there wasn't a huge chance that her opponent, this guy Greg Raymer, had a better hand. But there was still a chance. As a professional poker player, this is the kind of hand that you evaluate in a matter of seconds.

DUKE: So I really needed to eliminate that hand as a possibility, and I was having a lot of trouble doing that because I was so afraid of making this really bad, big decision on television and having everyone say, I told you so.

VEDANTAM: This was a pivotal hand, but a lot of the significance was really just in Annie's head. If she folded but really had the best hand...

DUKE: Everybody's going to be like, see, she plays like a girl. Like, look how he pushed her around. And if I called and I was wrong, then I could come up with a whole other thing, like look how bad she is. Could - didn't she know that he had the best hand? Like, any idiot would have known that, you know? And that was running in my head as I was trying to make this decision.

VEDANTAM: So you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't.

DUKE: Absolutely. Absolutely. And it was incredibly difficult. And it wasn't until I kind of snapped to and saw this tell that he had.

VEDANTAM: And when you say a tell, you mean what?

DUKE: So a tell is a physical - well, it could be something verbal that somebody says that gives a clue. But generally, when we talk about tells, we're talking about something physical that somebody does that telegraphs the quality of their hand, or at least what they think the quality of their hand is.

So Greg Raymer did something, which I haven't actually said what he actually did because I think that's unfair to him. But he did something that gave away the fact that his hand was very, very strong, which allowed me to then fold. And at that moment, I was actually quite confident in it.

VEDANTAM: But Annie's confidence in her decision was short-lived. Another player came up to her during a break in the game. What he said kicked the stereotype threat in Annie's head into overdrive.

DUKE: Phil Hellmuth, right after that hand occurred, came up and just told me, like, what an idiot I was because, clearly, Greg Raymer had ace-king. And I thought, oh, my gosh. This is a guy who's, like, at the - now, I think he's a 12-time world champion, but at the time, he probably had, you know, seven world championships or something. And he seemed pretty confident that he had ace-king, and - oh, no. And it was just - and then I had an hour in my room having a panic attack while we were on break from the tournament. It was pretty awful.

VEDANTAM: Stereotype threat had produced in Annie's head what poker players call tilt.

DUKE: Tilt, when you allow kind of bad things that happened to you that - and very often are out of your control to cause you to be a poor decision-maker going forward.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Annie has picked up a heart draw here...

VEDANTAM: So after she nearly lost it in her hotel room, Annie comes back to the table, and she has a stroke of luck. She wins a pretty nice hand. And you can actually hear at this point in the game, Annie begins to loosen up. It was as if she'd finally gotten the stereotype threat under control.


DUKE: The flop was just - wow.

GREG RAYMER: Yeah, it doesn't matter what order they come in, right?

DUKE: It doesn't matter...

RAYMER: (Laughter).

DUKE: ...Well, it kind of does in that situation, you know?

VEDANTAM: Annie had turned on the charm. The next time she faced Greg Raymer in a hand...


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Now Raymer needs to call or get out of the way.

VEDANTAM: ...He got cocky.


RAYMER: I call.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Oh, the world champion is going to call. It's a three, no good for Raymer.

RAYMER: Three, seven...

VEDANTAM: On the next hand, Annie he would knock out Raymer, whose nickname was Fossilman.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: It is an ace. It's no help to Fossilman, and he goes down.

DUKE: You played really well.

VEDANTAM: Just like that, Annie was back in the zone.

DUKE: And that actually sort of brought me out of this very bad headspace.

VEDANTAM: Soon the table dwindled to four players.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Hellmuth knocking out Johnny Chan in fourth place.

VEDANTAM: Then there were three...


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: It's a three. And that's the end of the line for Howard Lederer.

VEDANTAM: ...Until finally, Annie and Phil Hellmuth, the guy who nearly destroyed her confidence earlier in the game - these are the only two left.


VEDANTAM: And Annie says to him...


DUKE: This is all right, you know? I'm just happy to be in the final two. I mean, seriously, I donked (ph) my money off in the first two hours...

VEDANTAM: You could argue that this little-old-me act...


DUKE: ...Somehow...

VEDANTAM: ...Really did a number on Phil Hellmuth...


DUKE: ...Some way.

VEDANTAM: ...Because for the next half a dozen hands, he just did not know what to make of Annie.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Annie's got Phil second-guessing every move he makes and every move he doesn't make.

VEDANTAM: At this point, it's obvious to both Annie and Phil the other person has a strong hand. The question is, how strong? That's a judgment call. It's based on probability, instinct and all the undercurrents, expectations and stereotypes that have been running through the game the entire time. But now there's only one question. If Annie thinks that Phil has misjudged her, she knows she should call his bet.


DUKE: I call.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Annie calls the all-in.

HELLMUTH: [Expletive].

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: And Phil sees what he's up against.

VEDANTAM: And what he's up against here, meaning the dealer's cards, that's going to determine who wins. And if there was any moment that perfectly revealed how much of an outsider Annie was in this situation, it's this next one.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Annie Duke is now one card away from $2 million.

HELLMUTH: An eight, please.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Phil Hellmuth needs an eight to win this pot. Both players on their feet, anticipating the river card. It's a three. Annie Duke has defeated nine of the strongest poker players in the world and wins the first ever World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions.

HELLMUTH: [Expletive].


VEDANTAM: In classic reality-television style, cameras follow Phil as he storms away from the table, out a door...


HELLMUTH: She check-raised me six times.

VEDANTAM: ...Just pacing around talking to himself.


HELLMUTH: I know she didn't have it all six times.

DUKE: Oh, my God, I won.

VEDANTAM: It was the reaction of a man who just got beat.


HELLMUTH: She had to be [expletive] 30-to-1 to win this.

VEDANTAM: By someone...


HELLMUTH: I love Annie...

VEDANTAM: ...Who wasn't supposed to win...


HELLMUTH: ...But [expletive].

VEDANTAM: ...And maybe even wasn't supposed to be at the table in the first place. But precisely because Annie Duke knew how stereotypes can be both threat and advantage, well...


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Well, you heard Phil, and he was right. Annie was definitely a longshot to win this all. But as the only female at the table, she is now the last man standing.


VEDANTAM: I have to say, Annie Duke, you're not just a good poker player, but you're clearly a very wise person.

DUKE: (Laughter) Well, so are you. Thank you.


VEDANTAM: High-stakes poker is one of many domains where women have been forced to be flexible or, in some cases, to elbow their way into a world dominated by men. For centuries, women have been locked out of different professions because of barriers built on sexism and patriarchy. But as the economy has started to boom in fields traditionally dominated by women, men have not sought jobs in those areas. If anything, they seem to actively avoid such professions.

ALICE EAGLY: If women are attracted to the occupation, then it becomes something that women do, and men would perhaps hesitate to enter.

VEDANTAM: This is Northwestern University psychologist Alice Eagly. She says men even avoid female-dominated professions that used to be male-dominated, like working as a bank teller.

EAGLY: There used to be quite a few males. But then there got to be so many women, evidently, that men could find it a bit of a masculinity threat. Oh, you're a bank teller, people would say. They see bank tellers being women. And so they think of it - oh, it's feminine - not even knowing much about what they do.

VEDANTAM: After the break, masculinity threats...


ROBERT VAUGHAN: You must be gay.

VEDANTAM: ...How a fear of appearing feminine shapes the lives of men and affects us all.


ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Jack Byrnes) Not many men in your profession, though, are there, Greg?

BOSSON: Man up.


MATTHEW PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) Kind of girly, isn't it?


BOSSON: You're gay...

R VAUGHAN: A woman's job.

BOSSON: ...Man up.

R VAUGHAN: A woman's job.



VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

R VAUGHAN: My name is Robert Vaughan.

VEDANTAM: When he was 23, Robert Vaughn faced a dilemma - conform to norms of masculinity or pursue a promising career in a field long dominated by women. His life illustrates how such norms exert a gravitational force on the choices of millions of men.


VEDANTAM: Robert grew up in Belpre, Ohio.

R VAUGHAN: Very small town on the border of West Virginia.

VEDANTAM: There were clear expectations for the men in Belpre.

R VAUGHAN: Military service was big in my community.

VEDANTAM: For boys who were Robert's age, the extracurricular activity of choice was Scouting.

R VAUGHAN: My parents were divorced when I was 2, and I didn't really have a father figure growing up. And so Scouting became a way of kind of getting a bond with other men.

VEDANTAM: A few years into Scouting, Robert desperately wanted to go on a trip to New Mexico.

R VAUGHAN: I grew up in a very poor home. You know, we were on welfare. We didn't have the money to afford such a trip. And one of the men in our group actually stepped forward and paid for my way to be able to go. So that was really impactful for me, to have one of the men in our troop that saw me enough as a son, or at least someone he took under his wing, to say, you know what? This is important. It's a good life experience, and I'm going to take the financial hit to make this opportunity for you.

VEDANTAM: Robert loved everything about the trip.


R VAUGHAN: You're just doing guy things - it's amazing - where you're building campfires. And you're putting iodine in water, and, you know, you're smelling the ponderosa pine trees. And you're seeing deer and bears and having to put your food in bear bags. And you're just being rowdy and wrestling. It's - you know, it's a great time.

VEDANTAM: When Robert graduated from Belpre High School in 2002, his plan was to go to college. But he couldn't afford it.

R VAUGHAN: I actually did not know about student loans (laughter). I thought you just had to pay out of pocket. And I was like, I don't have that kind of money. And so my opportunities were either go get some working-class job in my town, working manufacturing at a plant, or join the military.

VEDANTAM: He chose the latter. He enlisted in the Navy.

R VAUGHAN: One of the things they asked me was, where do you want to have your first duty station? I said, I want to be as far away from Ohio as possible (laughter). And they said, how does San Diego sound? And I said, that sounds good.


VEDANTAM: His first job out at sea was an aviation boatswain's mates handler - long job title paired with equally long work hours.

R VAUGHAN: Eighteen-hour days. We would get the aircraft from the flight deck, and we would taxi them down to the hangar bay and chalk them and chain them and do that. And so we'd have these long flight days of bringing aircraft down for maintenance.

VEDANTAM: Robert liked working those long hours. Living on the ship was like an extended Scouting trip.

R VAUGHAN: Out to sea, there's literally nothing else to do. You are living your life with these people, 24/7. And so the downtime for us became sitting around and talking crap to each other and wrestling. So we'd be in our break room pretty much just having full-on group wrestling sessions (laughter) to get out energy. And then they'd say, OK, you know, we got some flights that are coming in. We got to bring them down. And so you're just doing that all day. And so it's just your whole life is around doing your job.


VEDANTAM: Robert joined the military because he didn't have the money for college. But after four years of service, he qualified for the GI Bill, which would cover his tuition and living expenses. In 2007, when he was 23...

R VAUGHAN: I got out of the military, and my wife became the primary breadwinner for us.

VEDANTAM: He began thinking about schools and programs. His wife's father had a suggestion.

R VAUGHAN: My father-in-law, who is a respiratory therapist, said, hey, you know, you should really look into nursing.


VEDANTAM: A man encouraging his daughter's husband to become a nurse - if you've seen the movie "Meet The Parents," you know this is the exact opposite of the relationship portrayed by Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro.


DE NIRO: (As Jack Byrnes) You know, Greg's in medicine, too, Larry.

JAMES REBHORN: (As Dr. Larry Banks) Oh, really? What field?

BEN STILLER: (As Greg Focker) Uh, nursing.


REBHORN: (As Dr. Larry Banks) That's good. No, really, what field?

STILLER: (As Greg Focker) Nursing.

R VAUGHAN: The first thing that went through my head was, well, that's a woman's job. That's a female job. That's not something that, really, men go into.

VEDANTAM: We know how this works. Remember psychologist Alice Eagly?

EAGLY: If women are attracted to the occupation, then it becomes something that women do, and men would perhaps hesitate to enter.

VEDANTAM: Why is this? What explains the reluctance of many men to enter professions that are dominated by women? Psychologist Jennifer Bosson used to believe there was a straightforward answer to that question. Her mother taught her, at a very young age, about sexism and misogyny.

BOSSON: I was raised by a mother who was going through her own feminist awakening in the '70s and '80s. So by the time I got to college, I kind of - feminism was familiar to me. I had read a lot about it. So for me, college wasn't about kind of realizing that the world is unfair toward women (laughter).

VEDANTAM: Instead, college was when she began to realize how the world restricted the choices of men.


VEDANTAM: Freshman year, Jennifer lived in a coed dorm. She made a whole suite of new friends, both men and women.

BOSSON: And so I remember one time I had a crush on this guy. And I thought he was really just the cutest thing. And I asked a friend of mine, a male friend, don't you think - I'm going to change his name; I'm going to call him Dave. Don't you think Dave is really cute? And my friend [bleep] - oh, I should've changed his name (laughter). And my friend, Mark let's call him, said, I don't know. I can't tell.

And I was like, what do you mean you can't tell if Dave is cute? Look at him. Look at his face. He's super cute. And Mark insisted that because he was a man and a straight man, he was incapable of judging the attractiveness of other men. And that enraged me at the time. I thought it was ridiculous. And I thought that he was just being kind of homophobic. And...

VEDANTAM: Did you tell your friend, I think you're being homophobic?

BOSSON: I don't remember if I accused him of that. I think what I was more inclined to do was say, nobody is going to think you're gay. I really just want to know, do you think his face is attractive (laughter)?


VEDANTAM: Jennifer never got an answer from her friend Mark.

BOSSON: I assumed that he knew but just didn't feel comfortable saying.

VEDANTAM: Jennifer's first reaction to this was what her mother had taught her. Guys go out of their way to appear macho because of a combination of homophobia and sexism. But over time, Jennifer began to study men's behavior. She's now a psychologist at the University of South Florida. And her data prompted her to a more nuanced conclusion about why men like Mark behave the way they do.


VEDANTAM: In one revealing experiment, her team gathered a group of about 200 men and women and sat them in front of computers.

BOSSON: We just kind of let them write for, you know, a few minutes about a time when they violated their gender role in public.

VEDANTAM: Some of the women talked about being called a tomboy. Others mentioned times when they worked in male-dominated fields and were made to feel uncomfortable by coworkers. But men?

BOSSON: Men say things like, I wore a pink shirt to work or, I held my girlfriend's purse while she ran into the bank or, I ordered a drink at a restaurant. And when it came out to me, it had a little cocktail umbrella in it, and my - you know, my friends teased me. So it's like - it's just mundane things. Like, women don't say, oh, I wore the wrong shirt.


VEDANTAM: Why would men make such a big deal out of trivial things? The familiar explanation is misogyny. But then Jennifer began to think about the different messages that boys receive from a very young age. We've all heard the taunts.

BOSSON: Are you a real man? Or they say, man up. There's a lot of things that are off-limits for men.

VEDANTAM: Jennifer's research experiments gradually led her to a new understanding of why men behave the way they do.

BOSSON: My collaborators and I argue that the male gender role itself is kind of conceptualized as a more precarious status. So manhood is something that's hard to earn and easy to lose relative to womanhood.


VEDANTAM: Manhood is something that is hard to earn and easy to lose. This insight changed the way Jennifer thought about the behavior of her friend Mark.

BOSSON: The pressure to not reveal any kinds of non-masculine opinions may have been so profound that it kind of made him feel like he really didn't know.

VEDANTAM: Seen this way, the driving force here is not misogyny but fear. Men are defending something that's fragile.

In terms of why this would be the case, why would you have one sex essentially have a more limited repertoire or have more policing around its boundaries? Why do women take their femininity for granted in ways that men do not take their masculinity for granted?

BOSSON: That's a really hard question to answer. But I think it has to do with how men - their social status is more hierarchically organized than women's is. So men are kind of more interested in or motivated to attain social status, and that kind of then translates into what we propose is kind of a chronic anxiety about their status, and that translates into a concern about whether one's seen as a real man or not.

VEDANTAM: This chronic anxiety comes through in one of Jennifer's experiments.

BOSSON: We have men do a stereotypically feminine task, like braiding a mannequin's hair versus, in another condition, they braid three strands of thick rope. So we kind of - in both conditions, they're braiding. But in one condition, it's very - what they're doing is very stereotypically feminine because there's a mannequin head. And they're kind of - she's got this long, blonde wig on, and they're asked to braid her hair. And there's little - pink little bows that they're supposed to put in her hair.

VEDANTAM: When you run that test on men and you randomly assign them to either braid hair or braid rope, what - how do you test what happens next, and what do the men do?

BOSSON: So after they do that - oh, and also, while they're doing the activity, we're videotaping them. So we want it to feel very public to them. And we tell them, people are going to later code your videotape. So it's not just that they're sitting alone in a room doing this. So then we shut off the camera. And we say, oh, for the next half of the experiment, we're going to have you do another activity. But this time you get to choose which one you want to do. And you can either do this brainteaser puzzle where you have to rearrange these shapes, or you can put on some boxing gloves and hit this punching pad.

And so in one of our studies, we found that if men braided hair, then they were much more likely to choose, as their next task, the punching task. But if they braided rope, then most of them wanted to do the brainteaser. So this suggests that the ones who had done the hair-braiding task felt emasculated, and so they kind of wanted to restore their masculinity by punching something, by, you know, behaving aggressively.


VEDANTAM: There's something really funny about these studies, isn't there?

BOSSON: Sure (laughter). That's one of my favorite things about what I do, is the kind of - the creativity and kind of concocting these scenarios. I also want to be taken seriously. So the findings aren't funny. The methods can be funny.

VEDANTAM: To be sure, it's worth pointing out that societal messages that constrain men have often been developed by men. Jennifer's point is not that sexism doesn't play a role in shaping these behaviors. Her point is that men can be trapped by the gender roles that they themselves have authored.

There's a way in which you can look at your work that you're doing and sort of say, in some ways, you're drawing - perhaps compassionate is sort of the wrong word. But you're drawing a more - deeper understanding of why men behave the way they do that is not just, men behave the way they do because there is misogyny.

BOSSON: Right. You know, I guess I feel like I have compassion for anybody who kind of finds themselves stuck in a world that makes no sense to them. So regardless of whose fault it is, I think that the struggle for status that men kind of are constantly feeling like they have to participate in, it sucks.

VEDANTAM: Men worry what other men will think, what women will think, what they themselves might think.


VEDANTAM: All this leads us back to Robert Vaughan's dilemma about whether to become a nurse. The precarious status of masculinity drives many men to see the profession as the equivalent of braiding hair with pink ribbons. Remember that clip from "Meet The Parents"?


DE NIRO: (As Jack Byrnes) Not many men in your profession, are there, Greg?

STILLER: (As Greg Focker) No, Jack, not traditionally.

VEDANTAM: This idea is deeply woven into our culture. Think about all the jokes you've heard about male nurses.


PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) So Dan...

VEDANTAM: You've heard them on "Friends."


PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) Nurse, not a doctor, huh? Kind of girly, isn't it?


VEDANTAM: And even on shows about hospital life, like "House."


HUGH LAURIE: (As Gregory House) Sorry, can't remember if I mocked you yet for being a male nurse.

VEDANTAM: And "Scrubs."


RICKY SCHRODER: (As Paul Flowers) She's embarrassed that she likes a nurse, and I really can't figure out why.

KEN JENKINS: (As Bob Kelso) Well, that's because you're doing a woman's job, son. Have a good one.


VEDANTAM: So if you're in Robert's shoes, is there a way to silence the voice in your head that says, this kind of work is emasculating?

R VAUGHAN: A woman's job, a woman's job, a woman's job.

VEDANTAM: You're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is NPR.



VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.


VEDANTAM: London, autumn 1854, word was spreading through the city. Thousands of British soldiers had died in a conflict 1,500 miles away in Eastern Europe - the Crimean War. But these men were not killed in combat.

JULIE FAIRMAN: What they were really dying of, which was of - not of their wounds, but infectious disease.

VEDANTAM: Historian Julie Fairman at the University of Pennsylvania says Londoners were shocked to learn about the poor medical conditions in Crimea. One woman in particular felt called to action. She was wealthy, from high society. Her name was Florence Nightingale.

FAIRMAN: She was able to convince her friends - and she had friends in high places - to let her take a contingent of nurses to the Crimea to take charge of this hospital.

VEDANTAM: In November, 1854, she arrived at a war camp with a group of nearly 40 nurses.

FAIRMAN: She finds hospitals that are dark. And they're dingy, and there's no air. And there's soldiers lying on the ground, crying out. It must have been horrendous.

VEDANTAM: Florence Nightingale took charge, bringing cleanliness and order to the medical camps. She focused on sanitation. She made sure that injured soldiers were fed. Back home, she came to be seen as something of a trailblazer. When she returned to London, she established the world's first professional nursing school with one type of student in mind - women. This was a shift. Before the Crimean War, nursing was not seen as the exclusive preserve of women.

FAIRMAN: Everybody was a nurse. Everybody took care of their family members. They took care of the children. They took care of the wounded in battle. And so the profession - in fact, you don't even talk about profession - but the idea of providing care to people was pretty heterogeneous across men, women and others.

VEDANTAM: But Florence Nightingale was convinced that nursing was not for men. As her method spread to Australia, Canada and the United States, women came to dominate nursing. Men were pushed to the fringes of the field, limited to working in psychiatric wards. By the 1930s, men were only 2 percent of nurses in the United States. Even today, that number is only 10 percent.

FAIRMAN: The idea of women being able to give that gentle, caring touch when they provided care was a really strong ethos throughout the nursing profession and the public.

VEDANTAM: Of course, when you think about it, there's nothing inherently feminine about nursing. Florence Nightingale literally invented that idea and made it real. So if you could turn nursing from a genderless profession to one seen as exclusively female, can you make the clock turn backwards?

BOSSON: To some degree, you can spin any job...

VEDANTAM: This, again, is psychologist Jennifer Bosson.

BOSSON: You could spin nursing as a very masculine occupation. It's dangerous. It's physically grueling. You don't really have to be that warm to be a nurse. It doesn't hurt, but, you know. So our stereotype of the nurse is one that almost - you know, you could modify that stereotype and turn nursing into a profession that does seem masculine or male-appropriate.

VEDANTAM: As it turned out, something along the lines of what Jennifer proposed was presented to Robert Vaughan. Remember how, when Robert got out of the Navy, his father-in-law suggested he think about nursing as a profession?

R VAUGHAN: It's a in-demand field, pays pretty well. And it's stable. You work 12-hour shifts, three days a week. You can make good money at it.

VEDANTAM: Robert didn't take his father-in-law's advice, but he did get a job at a hospital as a security guard. And one day, he had to deal with two patients who were out of control.

R VAUGHAN: We had a couple guys who came into the emergency room who were high, presumably on PCP. I don't remember what it was at the time. And they were just very belligerent, fighting. There was blood all over the place. And they were - had to be split up into different rooms. And so we're trying to attend to them, and they...

VEDANTAM: Were you actually asked to secure them in one of the rooms? What was the role that you were playing?

R VAUGHAN: Yeah, security, we're kind of there to have eyes on and potentially hands on, if we need to, to help control the situation. So I was there. And these guys both came out of their rooms that they were isolated into and just started fighting. And they actually locked themselves in one of the rooms and destroyed the room, did couple thousand dollars' worth of damage, and blood everywhere on the ceilings.

And the nurses and us and the sheriffs were - and the doctors were all holding them down and sedating and restraining. And I was like, man, this is pretty cool (laughter). As much as it was, you know, potentially dangerous, the action that the nurses were seeing was pretty exciting for me.


R VAUGHAN: You know, you think of nursing - you think of someone sitting at a bedside and being, like, let me hold your hand. And you see what it is realistically day-to-day, and for me, it was 180 degrees.


VEDANTAM: Robert took his father-in-law's advice and enrolled in nursing school. Now, it's not as if the old stereotypes about gender and nursing disappeared altogether. But Robert found ways to carve a path of his own. His wife Christine says that when he was in nursing school, he bonded with the handful of other men in the program.

CHRISTINE VAUGHAN: Four of his closest friends are men who went through the nursing school program with him. And that kind of bond that they built, that brotherhood - maybe it's very kind of, like, military-esque that they were together. And so there's this common thread of, like, we're the men united together, you know, in this space.

VEDANTAM: He's now been in the field for more than a decade. He works in a cardiovascular unit.

When you made the decision to become a nurse, did you tell your friends or family about this? I'm wondering if - did you have hesitation about doing this? Were there an awkward conversation where you sort of said, you know, I'm going to become a nurse? Did people look at you strangely?

R VAUGHAN: I thought I would. I thought I would at least some jeering from guys, you know, that I knew - be like, oh, you're going to be a nurse. You know? Oh, we always knew that you were in the closet. Or you know, there's jokes about - well, if you're a nurse, then therefore, you must be gay. But surprisingly, I did not get that. Like, a lot of the guys that I was friends with and - when I told them, you know, I'm going to go into nursing, they were like, oh, that's cool. It's a good job. It pays well. You know, it's a job of service. You know, you're helping people in their time of need. And I don't think there's any better job out there as far as - you literally get paid to help people in some of their worst moments and help them get better and heal and go home. And that, for me - I get paid to do that. It's awesome.

C VAUGHAN: And I find something really interesting. If I do say my husband's a nurse, people usually want to know if there's a specialty.

VEDANTAM: Christine Vaughn has seen people perform mental gymnastics when she tells them about her husband's job.

C VAUGHAN: And sometimes when I said, oh, well, he works in cardiology, it's like, oh - as if that's masculine - you know, like, that's made it more masculine nursing. And it's just a very interesting dynamic. I know he'll tell me stories, just that he'll walk into a room, and a patient will assume he's the doctor.

VEDANTAM: And once they realize he's not, Robert says patients sometimes get uncomfortable.

R VAUGHAN: In fact, I just got that last week. And you just go, oh, it's OK. If you don't want a male, perfectly fine. We'll work with that. I can talk to the charge nurse, and we'll get assignments changed around, and we'll make a note that you prefer female staff only.

VEDANTAM: And did you do that? Did you say that?

R VAUGHAN: Oh, yeah. I said that. I always say it every time if they have an issue. And sometimes they go, no, no; it's fine. It's just, I've never had a nurse before that was male. And sometimes they're OK with it. And sometimes they do want to change. And it's just - it's not a factor.

VEDANTAM: I just want to spend a second talking about how you feel with these interactions. I understand that, at a professional level, you are - you're happy to sort of say, you know, I'll accommodate your request and move on. But at some level, this is - you know, someone is basically saying they don't want you to be their nurse. And isn't that a little hurtful?

R VAUGHAN: It's a little hurtful, especially when I find it somewhat hypocritical when you'll have a - the doctor is a male. And you're - they're present; they're doing the checks. And it's very intimate. But somehow, as a nurse, I'm male and that's a problem. It's like - it doesn't make any sense to me. You go - wait a minute. The doctor is a male, too. Somehow you have no issue with him. But as a male nurse, you have an issue. It's contradictory.

VEDANTAM: Nearly everyone agrees it's a good idea to have diversity in health care. But Robert says there's a double standard when it comes to men in nursing.

R VAUGHAN: You know, you see women going in to become doctors. They are - it's admired. You're like, oh, it's great. It's a wonderful thing that they're going into this, and we want that. But the flip side of you've got more men going into nursing, there isn't the accolade of - oh, my gosh. You are - it's great of you to be reaching out and overcoming these gender stereotypes and going into this profession. They just look at you, go, oh, I guess you probably weren't smart enough to be a doctor.

VEDANTAM: There were some things about Robert I figured I couldn't get by just talking to him on the phone.


VEDANTAM: So I went to meet him.

Hi. You must be Robert.

R VAUGHAN: Hey. How are you?

VEDANTAM: How are you?

He's 5'10". He has a muscular frame and a shaved head with a goatee. I shadowed him as he exercised in his home gym.

C VAUGHAN: I think, for him when he was in nursing school, starting cycling with a group of other males going through nursing school was a starting point for him of, like, I'm going to have my own equipment. I'm going to do this. I'm going to take care of my body, and I'm going to do so very early in the morning religiously while my wife is still sleeping - because I'm just still amazed that he wakes up at 4:30 in the morning to do these things.

Did he tell you this?

VEDANTAM: Today he thankfully moved the session to 4:30 p.m. Robert has set up a bunch of equipment in his garage. There's a bench, stacks of weights, dumbbells, a pull-up bar. My favorite things are the motivational messages plastered on the wall. One sticker says, discipline equals freedom. Robert says it's from Jocko Willink.

R VAUGHAN: Jocko Willink - he's a Navy SEAL. He's on Twitter. He's quite popular, but he has a method. It's - you have a squat day, you have a push day, you have a lift day and you have a pull day.

VEDANTAM: As I listened to Robert, I couldn't help but remember the study that Jennifer Bosson had conducted. When men are asked to braid hair, they compensate by punching bags to reclaim their lost masculinity. Could some of Robert's intense exercise regimen be connected to his job as a nurse? Could the sports truck he drives to work every day be a defense mechanism?

R VAUGHAN: I think a lot of guys who might go into health care are interested in health and fitness. And I think part of it may also be showing, hey, you know, I'm not this - I'm not sure the wording I'd want to use - I'm not a - this nurse stereotype. Maybe it's pushing against the stereotype of what you might assume a male nurse would be. And so it's saying, you know what? I'm not that. I'm actually pretty manly in other aspects.

VEDANTAM: While Robert rejects the idea that his own fitness regime is a form of psychological compensation, he does see himself compensating in another area.

R VAUGHAN: I've had patients where I've had them a couple days, two, three days. And at first, they were hesitant about having a male as a nurse. And they would pull me aside as they're discharging home, and they say, you know what? You were the best nurse the entire time I was here. I had a lot of female nurses, and they were great. But you were actually more gentle, more caring because you are acutely aware of the fact that you're being judged in that manner.

VEDANTAM: Robert was drawn to nursing because he saw the job as an extension of the identity he'd established in the military. But in his decade as a nurse, he's grown to admire the skills he once considered feminine.

R VAUGHAN: My thinking on this has evolved to the point where I can say men are still just as compassionate and empathetic. We just express that sometimes in a different way. You know, being a father - I have two kids. You know, I don't love my kids any less than my wife does. But I show my love and my compassion and my empathy to my kids sometimes in a different way than my wife does.

C VAUGHAN: Is that your trampoline? My daughter, who's 4 - almost 4 - goes up to my mother and says, grandma, look at my muscles. I work out.

VEDANTAM: Oh, my gosh. What are these? Are these two-pound dumbbells?

R VAUGHAN: My daughter wakes up, and she wants to do pushups with me in the morning. And she wants to eat my protein bar when I'm waking up in the morning. You know, the impact that I have on her, you know, is me being a role model for making her a strong, independent woman.

VEDANTAM: When policymakers talk about interventions to help the jobless find work, they talk about vocational schools and retraining skills. They don't talk about how, without anyone saying it aloud, one-half of the population might be systematically excluding itself from the very parts of the economy that are booming. Robert was reluctant to pursue nursing because of all the narratives about male nurses.


PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) Kind of girly, isn't it?


VEDANTAM: Of course, there is another word for these emasculating jokes. They are stereotypes. When it comes to fighting stereotypes, we often imagine that the right approach is to explain why the stereotypes are wrong. But Robert's life suggests a different solution, and perhaps a more effective one. Stereotypes are powerful because the stories we tell about ourselves are powerful. They shape how we see the world and how the world sees us. But in the end, they are only stories. And stories - we can rewrite them.


VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Parth Shah and Brent Baughman, and edited by Tara Boyle and Rhaina Cohen. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Thomas Lu, Laura Kwerel and Camila Vargas-Restrepo. Special thanks to Maggie Penman and Andy Huether. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.