Barely four decades after Marcus Welby, M.D. personified the practice of medicine, it's come to this. Recruiters are casting their nets as wide as they can in the hope of attracting a qualified male family physician to coach trainees in the art of the profession. "We're holding out for a guy," says Dr. Perle Feldman, director of the Family Medicine Residency Program at North York General Hospital. Feldman is trying to fill just one of the program's academic teaching positions (of which there are typically four) with a male doctor. Right now, the entire family medicine teaching unit at the Toronto hospital is female, Feldman explains. Not only is the hospital-based teaching staff exclusively female, but the community family practices where the students learn the ropes are all led by female physicians, too, she says.
"It's a big problem," she sighs. "When I was training in the early eighties, there were mostly bearded, avuncular male family doctors." Now, women predominate. Why is this a problem? "It's more balanced, it's more advantageous to have different styles," she says. The team is looking for the best possible contender. "But if it's a choice between two equally good candidates, we'd choose a man."
Exactly the opposite movement is afoot in corporate governance. Women hold just 14% of board seats on Financial Post 500 companies, according to the Catalyst 2009 Census, which also reported that 45% of publicly held companies had no female directors. The most common explanation for the gender gap is that discrimination is keeping women from top positions-and the most commonly proposed solution is to forcefully even out the numbers via positive discrimination, or through quotas mandating a 50-50 division.
But what if women are deliberately avoiding certain jobs-such as 80-hour-a-week Up in the Air-style corporate gigs, or as welders on construction sites-in order to pursue their interests in other areas?
And not just in the boardroom. In the construction industry, for example, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada has recently proposed that anyone planning to build ought to "employ a gender-based hiring quota as a condition of contract for their builders."
But what if women are deliberately avoiding certain jobs-such as 80-hour-a-week Up in the Air-style corporate gigs, or as welders on construction sites-in order to pursue their interests in other areas? Several surveys of university graduates indicate that the majority of women put a priority on being able to make a difference in their work, and the ability to work flexible hours, which might propel them toward a career in public law, counselling or social work, for example.
Could it be that the institutionalized sexism in our culture is now a less powerful force than the choices freely made by the work force? On one hand, women, largely the higher-achieving sex in the classroom, simply prefer medicine over software engineering or bond trading. On the other, men gravitate toward business and computer science, and away from jobs that require lots of teaching, discussion and "touchy-feely" content, as Feldman has discovered. In short, what if the received wisdom-that equal opportunity for the sexes should automatically create a 50-50 result in every occupation-is just a dated ideal that doesn't take into account people's actual preferences?
In just a few decades, several formerly male professions have become primarily female domains. And this reversed gender gap has engendered another grassroots movement: As women start to populate certain disciplines, they're beginning to redefine the landscape. Meanwhile, they're also voting with their feet to leave areas they've entered, such as the C-suite and law, which are struggling to adjust to women's expectations of greater flexibility, work-life balance and autonomy. The result is a gender-divided professional universe where, contrary to popular belief, men are thin on the ground these days.
The struggle to find a man interested in a prestigious academic position is just one indication of the way the professions in North America are tilting more female every year. It's a marked trend in nearly every field requiring an advanced university degree, but most extreme in health care. Physiotherapy is 78% female, speech pathology 96%.
"Mom! Can men be real doctors?" The author's son posed this provocative question
In my own field, psychology, there were years when I didn't have a single male student in my graduate seminars (83% of the discipline's doctoral students are female). Medicine is remarkable, though, in that the evolution from male to female continues to gain steam. Between 2004 and 2008, the number of male doctors grew by 3.8%, while the number of females increased by 16.3%, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. Some 64% of recent family medicine graduates are now female, a shift that is even more pronounced in specialties such as obstetrics and gynecology, where 82% of the newly minted MDs are women, according to the Canadian Post-MD Education Registry.