How the stifling confines of gendered expectations are not limited to one gender…
Xafina | Content Creator at She’s A Crowd
When Jane* questioned why men make up less than 1% of registered midwives in Australia, the proverbial Pandora’s box opened.
Jane, a registered nurse and midwife, tells me of the rhetoric readily bandied about; namely, that male midwives “must be gay” or “really like looking at vaginas”. Yet male obstetricians and gynaecologists, who represent 55%¹ of such clinicians in Australia, rarely face the same barrage of narrow-minded commentary.
So why is it that men are so significantly underrepresented in midwifery, and overly represented in obstetrics?
In her day-to-day work, Jane finds herself constantly justifying her profession and quelling misconceptions; from the offhanded “Oh, you must be really good at making beds” and “bringing patients cups of tea” to the ill-informed “What’s a midwife? Doesn’t that mean you’re just a nurse?” Even more disillusioning is her experience with a doctor in the workplace, who once said “Wow, we are really busy today, I even helped a patient sit up! Look at me helping the nurses, what a demotion”.
Such experiences not only speak to the lack of understanding around what it means to be a midwife; it also casts a damning light on how society views and values roles traditionally occupied by women. Where the obstetrics field is widely accepted as being skills-based, midwifery is viewed through an entirely different lens. Specifically, through the lens of antiquated gender norms and expectations, where the woman is viewed as the innate nurturer, biologically predisposed to providing care through emotional support only. In Australia alone, women undertake 76% of childcare and 69% of care of adults — all unpaid work that is valued at $425 billion².
But we all know that the “biology” argument has been debunked time and time again, with a multitude of studies attributing such tendencies to socialisation from a young age. In one study, researchers found that when left alone (particularly without their fathers), half of boys aged between five and thirteen chose to play with “feminine” toys as often as “masculine” ones. Over time, however, conventional notions of masculinity come to dictate these preferences³. And it is these notions that are heralded at the expense of those associated with femininity. What would possess a man to take on a role that entails providing care, support and advice to women? How beneath them.
Jane tells me of a male midwife bullied out of the profession, after being incessantly questioned as to his motives by male partners of female patients. In one case, a male partner claimed the midwife could not look at his wife’s vagina. This unfounded scepticism not only exposes undertones of toxic masculinity, a man’s sense of entitlement to his partner’s body and the sexualisation of her health — it also reinforces a lack of respect for the midwifery profession itself. After all, as Jane aptly put it:
“I would really like to see if these same male counterparts would ask a male obstetrician about his motives”.
Ultimately this gendered lens blinds us from appreciating the role of midwives — that is, despite being female-dominated, it is a profession that requires a high level of specific technical expertise.
“While doctors might know more broadly, I am a specialist in my field and the lack of recognition [from society] is really upsetting…” Jane says. She goes on:
“We are increasingly becoming a more medicalised society, with 34% of women delivering via caesarean section in 2016, up 10% from the early 2000s⁴. Over the last couple of years, I am confident this statistic has increased. We [midwives] need to be equipped to look after surgical patients, whilst maintaining our neonatal resuscitation abilities. Other responsibilities include looking after complex antenatal women on wards whilst feeding premature babies at risk of hypothermia and weight loss, looking after C-section women, supporting breastfeeding, dealing with complex social issues involving child protection services…the list goes on. The notion of a sisterhood when it comes to birth and postnatal care is becoming less relevant. We are there to do a complex, specialised job.”
And so the question becomes — are we fundamentally undervaluing a profession, because it is predominantly made up of the historically undervalued sex?
“I do feel as if society thinks that men are too good to be midwives, but good enough to be obstetricians; that the midwifery profession is too low for them…” says Jane.
Where obstetrics has always been predominantly made up of men, it is starting to trend towards equality. Despite this, some female physicians have expressed fear that obstetrics and gynaecology would lose prestige and compensation if men constituted the minority. They cite the pay of paediatricians as an example, which is the lowest among physicians — a specialty where the majority are women⁵.
As Wendy Kline, a history of medicine Professor at Purdue University, asserts: “If it’s not something men are doing, then it’s inherently less valuable”.
As a society, we have been fed this idea of what it means to be a midwife, lawyer, teacher, doctor. Jane reminds me that we consume content glorifying doctors, casting nurses and midwives as subordinates. The media is oftentimes complicit in fuelling common stereotypes of nurses and midwives — and, in some cases, failing to acknowledge they exist at all.
Academics Donna Lee Brien and Margaret McAllister surmised: “…most nursing roles on screen are insignificant or benign, and are included simply to dress the set or provide romantic or sexual interest. As a result, the idea of the good nurse — calm, sympathetic and caring — has become a powerful and entrenched stereotype on screen. Such romanticised imaging may be flattering for nurses themselves, although it hardly stimulates any deep reflection on their professional role”⁶.
Now we live in a world where it is not an excuse to claim you did not see or you did not know. Equality does not have time for ignorance. Where women are striving to break the ‘glass ceiling’ in male-dominated fields, so too are men in industries traditionally the domain of women. However, it is the added layer of how we perceive and ultimately undervalue ‘women’s work’ that undermines the latter pursuit.
At the heart of it, you need not look much further than the origin of the word itself. Indeed, “midwife” means with woman. Last time I checked, this does not discriminate based on gender.
*Pseudonym used to protect Jane’s identity
Note: This piece may not fully reflect the experiences of individuals with identities outside the gender binary and cisnormativity, whose experiences are just as valid and important. If you identify yourself outside these categories and have a story to share, you can here or as part of the Blog Project.
Want to share your story? As part of the She’s A Crowd Blog Project, we will be interviewing women from all communities to share their experiences. If you would like to get involved (or know someone else who might), please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
She’s A Crowd uses storytelling data to make cities safer. Using digital crowd-mapping technology and data analytics, She’s A Crowd collects data about harassment and sexual assault to empower decision makers to take preventative action on gender-based violence.
 Australian Government Department of Health. (2017) Obstetrics and Gynaecology 2016 Factsheet, https://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/05EB31F8E8114371CA257E6E001A2EA1/$File/Obstetrics%20and%20gynaecology.pdf.
 PricewaterhouseCoopers. (2017) Understanding the unpaid economy, https://www.pwc.com.au/australia-in-transition/publications/understanding-the-unpaid-economy-mar17.pdf.
 Brown, LM, Lamb, S & Tappan, MB 2009, Packaging boyhood : saving our sons from superheroes, slackers, and other media stereotypes, St. Martin’s Press. Cherney, I. D. and London, K. (2006) ‘Gender-linked Differences in the Toys, Television Shows, Computer Games, and Outdoor Activities of 5- to 13-year-old Children’, Sex Roles, p. 717.
 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2018) Australia’s mothers and babies 2016, https://www.aihw.gov.au/getmedia/7a8ad47e-8817-46d3-9757-44fe975969c4/aihw-per-97.pdf.aspx?inline=true. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2011) Australia’s mothers and babies 2009, https://www.aihw.gov.au/getmedia/3cc76661-0385-4a4b-b32d-238d7586bd7a/13283.pdf.aspx?inline=true.
 Karlamangla, S 2018, Male doctors are disappearing from gynecology. Not everybody is thrilled about it, Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/health/la-me-male-gynos-20180307-htmlstory.html?fbclid=IwAR1f8xwC9RjMK8COEL__JsktyiuUxiUZAwDGXaN2gP2LlTHctqlY3usKrKo.
 Brian, DL and McKallister, M 2019, Friday essay: saints or monsters, pop culture’s limited view of nurses, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-saints-or-monsters-pop-cultures-limited-view-of-nurses-107696?fbclid=IwAR3CMhQZPhZwiClT0VEcQnJUREmJpF6ov2NaHraKjjOxMwh95qrT4gYSPHs.