Real Men Wear Pink

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Carrington College Instructors Defy Gender Stereotypes in Health Care

By Liza Long, Photography by Mark Dyrud and Liza Long

Jason Sonne, a registered dental hygienist, and Mark Fuller, who earned his master’s degree in nursing, are two men who defy healthcare’s pink collar stereotypes. While men and women are now graduating from medical and dental schools in nearly equal numbers, the same gender-equalizing trends have not occurred in healthcare fields traditionally dominated by women. In 2014, 90 percent of all registered nurses were women.  For dental hygienists, the gender gap is even worse. According to the American Dental Hygienists Association, 96 percent of dental hygiene students are female.Web-2

I sat down with Sonne and Fuller, who both work as educators at Carrington College-Boise, to discuss the nontraditional career paths they both chose, the challenges and opportunities each has faced, and how they inspire their students to embrace gender equality.

“Frankly, what attracted me to dental hygiene were the hours,” Sonne said when I interviewed him outside the Carrington College dental hygiene clinic, where student provide complimentary cleanings to the community. “I liked the flexible work schedule, and the pay is excellent. Plus, I love helping people achieve noticeable improvements in their oral health. The more complex the case, the better!”

For Fuller, the holistic approach to health care attracted him to the field. He originally planned to attend medical school, but when his younger sister decided to attend Carrington College’s Practical Nursing program, Fuller enrolled, too. “I would not have been as happy as a doctor,” he said. “The nursing approach goes beyond what most people think of as ‘health.’ The nurse sees the interconnectedness of things—how everything plays a part in health, from finances to spirituality.”

Although Sonne and Fuller enjoy their careers, they also both reported experiencing different treatment from colleagues because of their gender. “I’ve personally never seen gender as a barrier,” Sonne said. “But when I worked in California, patients would occasionally say, ‘I’ve never had a male hygienist before,’ but the male doctors with their usually all-female staff were thrilled to have me there. In Idaho, I think we could still be more accepting though. I’ve heard people say that I can’t be a good hygienist because I’m male.”

Fuller reports similar challenges. “Some female nurses seem to think that men can’t be as effective, that we can’t have as much compassion. When I tell people I’m a nurse, they giggle,” he said.

Both Sonne and Fuller work to educate their students about the need to overcome gender stereotypes.

“I was hired to work with students because of my 17 years of clinical experience,” Sonne said. “Like most dental hygiene programs, ours is dominated by women, although we do have a few male students. Regardless of gender, I think I can be a positive role model for all the students.

“We should encourage all people to pursue their professional passion, and I show our students it can be done,” he said.

Noting how pervasive gender bias can be in the nursing field, Fuller said, “As an educator, I have the power to change that culture. But I still have to teach that there are differences between men and women. Not all female patients are okay with having a male nurse – it goes against our societal concept of what a nurse is. I also tell my male students that they should always have a chaperone when working with young female patients; however, I don’t know of any female nurses who have chaperones when working with younger male patients.”

Fuller also feels that his female colleagues deserve more respect. “I think I get more respect from doctors because I’m male,” he said. “I’ve never had a doctor yell at me or make me feel stupid, but I’ve personally seen experienced female nurses, who probably know more than the doctor, be treated disrespectfully. On the other hand, female colleagues sometimes tell me that because I’m a man, I don’t have that ‘natural nursing instinct.’ We have to listen to each other, understanding that both genders have something valuable to contribute.”

As Fuller and Sonne educate the next generation of nurses and dental hygienists, they will continue to encourage their students to pursue their professional passions, no matter what their gender.

Author bio: Liza Long is a published author and instructor at Carrington College in Boise, Idaho.

Editorial disclosure: the author of this piece is related to the editor of Greenbelt Magazine.

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