Earnings and Yearnings: Gender Contender

The ups and downs of flouting gender norms at work

By Michele Lent Hirsch, published September 6, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

 Kathryn Harpold, firefighter, at work

BLAZING A TRAIL: Kathryn Harpold in her fire gear.

Hold the parade. While the last 10 years have seen an increase in the number of men working traditionally female jobs and women in typically male ones, gender contenders aren't taking the world by storm. And those who are crossing over into unconventional territory are bumping up against some very conventional expectations.

In an Ohio University study, psychologist Samantha Morris found that men in typically female roles such as nurse benefit from the glass escalator effect: They're rated as more competent, more likable, less hostile, and more deserving of promotion than men in "male" positions. Women who jettison tradition for jobs like VP of finance, however, are ranked negatively across all measures—and perceived as less deserving of promotion.

As males in "female" fields have lower perceived status than expectations prescribe, their peers may experience dissonance. Morris suspects that colleagues promote these men to "right" the picture, putting guys back on top. Unlike their female counterparts, then, male gender benders reap rewards.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of female firefighters has gone from 2.6 to 3.7: a significant jump—but a far cry from 50. Civil engineering's sex ratio has fluctuated, with women at 9.7 percent of the field. Men haven't been flooding nontraditional jobs, either. Among early childhood educators, they account for just 2.9 percent.

Still, as the numbers inch higher, who are the cross-over pioneers? Some seek to prove that women can do physical work or that men can be nurturing. Others have less political motives:They just need a stable job. And some are more concerned with career traits—say, being outdoors or working with kids—than with sticking to norms. Personality expert Steven Reiss, Ph.D., says those who go rogue aren't necessarily headstrong about it. Norm-breakers may be bold—or they may simply value a fulfilling career.

Meet four individuals who are thriving despite stereotypes.

Kathryn Harpold, Firefighter

Kathryn Harpold didn't set out to fight flames. But when she caught a news report about gender troubles at the San Francisco fire department, she bristled. Hiring practices were being scrutinized; talking heads explained that women couldn't pass the physical agility test. Yeah right, she said. Watch me.

That was 1982. By 1988 Harpold had excelled on all tests and joined a nearby fire department—and by 1996 she'd been promoted to captain. She's now filling a vacancy as acting battalion chief: "I really don't see any reason why I shouldn't get the spot permanently."

Harpold was also drawn to the fire service's family-oriented culture and schedule. Yet after announcing her pregnancy two years into the job, she heard grumbling: If she really wanted to be a firefighter, she wouldn't have a kid. Meanwhile, Harpold's peers all went home to see their children—they just hadn't been the ones to give birth. Though she was nervous the double standard would hurt her career, Harpold's work ethic proved too strong for colleagues to ignore.

Still, accommodations came late. After a fire, crews must shower right away to remove carcinogenic debris. But for years, one open bathroom meant Harpold had to stay dirty for hours until the men had all washed up. After a promotion, she finally declared: "I'm taking my shower first and you guys have to wait!"

Brett Berk, (Former) pre-school teacher

Understanding kids came naturally to Berk. At 13 he was sought after by families who wanted a male sitter; by his 20s he was valued in early childhood programs for his "perspective." And though he was also coming out, being gay didn't diminish others' enthusiasm for his work. "I don't know why they thought I would be an appropriate male model," he laughs. But as one school director admitted, Berk's maleness was a bonus.

Unlike some men he's encountered, Berk isn't defensive about his "female" career choice. If he were straight, he says, or had a different personality, he might be more worried about what others thought.

Now an author on sexuality, Berk recalls showing kids that roles don't have to be strict. Once while Berk helped a few tots play house, a child yelled, "You can't do that!" Retorted a girl: "Brett's a woman-man: He can do whatever he wants."

Susan Levi, Exterminator

After being a photographer for 20 years, Levi realized that the plunging economy and shifting digital playing field would prove deadly to business. She wanted to make sure her husband wasn't the only breadwinner. Feeling entrepreneurial, she began uniting investors with franchises. But when a deal fell through in 2009, Levi offered herself to the company. Without giving a thought to gender, she became the face of West Montgomery, Maryland's Mosquito Squad. And with that she was an exterminator.

In an area battling deer ticks and Lyme disease, customers are happy to see anyone with a sprayer; gender rarely comes up. Yet Levi does notice her unusual position when driving her company truck. Mosquito Squad's mascot, painted on the side, is a chiseled hero bursting with muscles; the national website calls him a "manly man." Driving with the mascot, she admits, makes her feel a little stronger.

Trevor Bowden, Hair and makeup artist

Some men face criticism—or worse—upon telling parents their nontraditional goals. East Londoner Trevor Bowden had a much different experience: After his interest in art became apparent, it was his father who suggested he try hairdressing.

At 13, rather than work a paper route like his friends, Bowden began sweeping the floor and shampooing heads at a salon. The gig stuck. Now in his 50s, he grooms models at major fashion shoots.

Bowden's gender doesn't raise questions; he's among plenty of male stylists. But as a straight man in a profession not known for its hetero leanings, he finds himself in odd situations. At times, he's seen others roll their eyes at him, acting like the straight guy has crashed the scene.

Although Bowden admits that being wed to a woman sometimes leaves him out of the club, he's quick to point out that he's not being discriminated against. "There are some people who just feel more comfortable around gay hairdressers." And passion trumps any tension. No matter what, he says, "I love cutting hair."