"Man Up" | Hidden Brain You've certainly heard some variation of the phrase "be a man." But what does that even mean? This week, we question our existing definitions of masculinity. We'll meet a man who works in a field traditionally considered "women's work." And we'll hear from a researcher who says manhood is "hard to earn and easy to lose."

'Man Up': How A Fear Of Appearing Feminine Restricts Men, And Affects Us All

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This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. At 8:30 in the morning on the first Friday of every month, broadcast anchors around the country spring into action.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: It's jobs Friday...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: A look ahead to the jobs report.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: The monthly jobs report is out.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: ...And here are the headlines from today's report.

MARTIN: The lowest unemployment rate in 18 years.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Yep, the lowest rate since the year 2000.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Many companies now are so desperate for workers that they're actually giving former inmates a chance and even overlooking marijuana use to find the people they need.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: And if you're interested in health care or social services, 1.2 million job openings as of this morning.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: You know, I had a couple of things...

VEDANTAM: While these reports tell the story of a lush employment landscape, another set of stories describes a land barren of opportunity.


AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Most experts agree coal is not going to make a big comeback as...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Overall, 200,000 jobs were lost in the U.S. manufacturing industry.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Still, the majority of those Americans out of the workforce aren't looking to get back in. They are sort of missing from the workplace.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Now we need more workers. There is a jobs gap in this country with millions of people out of work and millions of jobs that need to be filled.


VEDANTAM: What explains this paradox? How can it be that there are millions of job openings that employers are desperate to fill at the same time that you have millions of people who say they're out of options? Here's Harvard economist Lawrence Katz.

LAWRENCE KATZ: While the unemployment rate now is back to where it was before the Great Recession, the non-employment rate has risen as people have dropped out of the labor market.

VEDANTAM: Lawrence says the unemployment rate we hear about on the news - it doesn't include the people who've given up looking for work.

KATZ: There's a large category of individuals who don't call themselves retired, don't call themselves in school and don't call themselves looking for work.

VEDANTAM: When these discouraged people are taken into account, that record low unemployment rate...





VEDANTAM: ...Doubles.


VEDANTAM: Why aren't the people who need jobs moving to parts of the economy that are booming?

KATZ: You know, there are going to be lots of demand for jobs in the health care sector - physical therapist and home health aides.

VEDANTAM: A steelworker out of a job should be willing to become a home health aide, right? Now, there are many reasons why this might not happen. New professions demand new skills. They may pay less. But there's also a hidden factor that makes such transitions especially difficult. For a steelworker to become a home health aide, that's not just a career change. It's a psychological transformation - a change in identity.

KATZ: So you had worked in a steel plant. You were laid off. Maybe in the past, you had actually been recalled to that type of work. But in many cases, that job is, you know, unfortunately, permanently gone. And it's very difficult to adjust to looking forward to the types of jobs that are out there.

VEDANTAM: Today, we're going to look at one large group of workers affected by this identity trap and one surprising explanation for their behavior. Who are these workers? Men.

ALICE EAGLY: There is very little movement of men - period.

VEDANTAM: This is Northwestern University social psychologist Alice Eagly. She and others have studied why many men are not moving to sectors of the economy that are booming. The reasons for this are complex and rooted in psychology and history. For centuries, women have been locked out of different professions because of barriers built on sexism and patriarchy. Women have been forced to be flexible, or, in some cases, to elbow their way into professions dominated by men. But as the economy has started to boom in areas traditionally dominated by women, men have not sought jobs in those fields. If anything, they seem to actively avoid such professions.

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

VEDANTAM: 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: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN - masculinity threats...



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. Did you leave your balls at home? You're gay.

EAGLY: A woman's job.

BOSSON: Man up.

EAGLY: A woman's job.


ROBERT VAUGHN: My name is Robert Vaughn.

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. VAUGHN: Very small town on the border of West Virginia.

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

R. VAUGHN: Military service was big in my community.

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

R. VAUGHN: Well, one thing that really got me interested in scouting was I grew up in a - you could call it a broken home. 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. VAUGHN: 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 it cost him a couple thousand dollars, I believe.

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. VAUGHN: 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 your bear bags, and you're just being rowdy and wrestling. 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. VAUGHN: I actually did not know about student loans (laughter). Surprising enough, I didn't know that you can get loans for college. 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.


VEDANTAM: He enlisted in the Navy.

R. VAUGHN: 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? 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. VAUGHN: 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. VAUGHN: 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, we've got some flights that are coming in. We got to bring them down. And so you're just doing that all day. 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. VAUGHN: 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. VAUGHN: 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. VAUGHN: 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. She doesn't anymore.


VEDANTAM: Jennifer Bosson's 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.

BOSSON: Prior to college, if I was going to be, like, just lounging around on someone's bed, chatting about life and stuff and music and opinions, it was always women. 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...


BOSSON: 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 - I don't remember if I accused him of that. I think what I was more inclined to do was say, nobody's 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 co-workers. 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. Or they say, you know, did you leave your balls at home, or whatever. I don't know if I'm allowed to say balls at NPR. But there's a lot of things that are off limits for men.

VEDANTAM: Jennifer's research experiments gradually lead 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, blond 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 did 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 videotapes. So it's not just that they're sitting alone in a room doing this. We make it as - we make it feel as public as possible. 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 brain teaser 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 brain teaser. 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 where you're measuring things that are really important, but you're doing it in these kind of creative and interesting ways in the lab. So, yeah, I like to think there's something funny about it, although 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 - a 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. 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. All this leads us back to Robert Vaughn'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, though, 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 heard about male nurses.


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

VEDANTAM: You 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?

EAGLY: A woman's job. A woman's job. A woman's job.


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 at 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've been horrendous, with rodents and filth all over the place.

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.

FAIRMAN: She had the saying, every woman is a nurse - and believed that what nurses did was very akin to what women were doing in their homes.


VEDANTAM: You can see Nightingale's influence everywhere in nursing, even Julie Fairman's job title.

FAIRMAN: I am the Nightingale professor in honor of nursing veterans at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.

VEDANTAM: The Nightingale professor.


VEDANTAM: 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 methods 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 Vaughn. Remember how, when Robert got out of the Navy, his father-in-law suggested he think about nursing as a profession?

R. VAUGHN: It's a in-demand field, pays pretty well, and it's stable. You can 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. VAUGHN: 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. VAUGHN: 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 a couple thousand dollars' worth of damage - blood everywhere on the ceilings. The nurses and us and the sheriffs and the doctors are 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. VAUGHN: 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: In fact, Robert realized some aspects of nursing were actually quite similar to other things he'd done in his life.

R. VAUGHN: Being rowdy and wrestling.

Pretty much just having full-on group wrestling sessions.

Nurses and us and the sheriffs and the doctors are all holding them down and sedating...

You're just doing guy things. It's amazing.

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 (ph), says that when he was in nursing school, he bonded with the handful of other men in the program.

CHRISTINE VAUGHN: 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 military-esque that they are 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? Was there an awkward conversation where you sort of said, you know, I'm going to become a nurse, and people looked at you strangely?

R. VAUGHN: I thought I would. I thought I would get some - at least some jeering from guys that I, you know, that I knew - they'd be like, oh, you are 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 - you must be gay. But surprisingly, I did not get that. 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, that's cool. It's a good job. It pays well (laughter). You know, it's a job of service. So 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. VAUGHN: And I find something really interesting. If I do say my husband is 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. VAUGHN: And sometimes I say, oh, well, he works in cardiology. It's like, oh - as if that's masculine - 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, Roberts says patients sometimes get uncomfortable.

R. VAUGHN: In fact, I just got that last week. It's just that thing of the disappointment in their voice or the fear in their voice. 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. VAUGHN: Oh, yeah. I said that. I always say it every time if they have an issue. And sometimes they'll 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'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. VAUGHN: 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 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. VAUGHN: You know, you see women going in to become doctors. They are - you're like, oh, it's great. It's a wonderful thing that they're going to 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 and go, I guess you probably weren't smart enough to be a doctor.

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


VEDANTAM: Hi. You must be Robert.

R. VAUGHN: 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. VAUGHN: 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 and 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. VAUGHN: Jocko Willink, he's a Navy SEAL. He's on Twitter. He's quite popular. But he has a method - it's 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. VAUGHN: I think a lot of guys who might go into health care are interested in health and fitness. They're interested in being healthy, being fit, being active. And so they're doing a lot of - they're running marathons. They're doing weightlifting competitions. They're doing bodybuilding competitions. And I think part of it may also be showing, hey, you know, I'm not this - I'm not sure of the wording I want to use for it. I'm not a guy who is this meek or - I don't know - I'm not effeminate, or I'm not 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: That looks like something you got back from the hospital. It looks like a nursing thing.

R. VAUGHN: It is (laughter). We use these on our patients. And so I'll keep a track of my heart rate in real time - so 171.

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. VAUGHN: I've had patients where I've had them a couple days, two or 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'll 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 and 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. VAUGHN: 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...


R. VAUGHN: ...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. VAUGHN: Is that a trampoline?

R. VAUGHN: 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. VAUGHN: 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) 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...


VEDANTAM: ...We can rewrite them.


VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Parth Shah, and edited by Tara Boyle and Rhaina Cohen. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Thomas Lu, Laura Kwerel and Camila Vargas-Restrepo. We had audio assistance from Andy Huether.

Our Unsung Hero today is Marilyn Geewax. In her former role as NPR's senior business news editor, Marilyn took me aside one day and told me that HIDDEN BRAIN needed to examine how identity could shape the unemployment rate. Today's story is a direct result of her suggestion. If you like the story, you have Marilyn to thank. We know that we do.


VEDANTAM: One last thing before we go. We're just getting started on a show about living vicariously, watching other people perform athletic or creative feats instead of attempting those things ourselves. Do you prefer cooking shows to cooking? Has watching exercise videos come to take the place of working out yourself? Ever feel that pornography is better than intimacy with an actual partner? If you're willing to share your personal story with us, record a voice memo on your phone and email it to us at hiddenbrain@npr.org. Use the subject line Watching Others, and give us a phone number where we can reach you.

I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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