In my role as a career counselor, I am able to work with male-identified clients to debunk the idea that the only noble goals in career are wealth and material goods.
I regularly see the visible signs of relief on my clients’ faces when they realize that they don’t have to dream of futures with 70+ hour work weeks at jobs they hate, having sold their souls for a paycheck, with the desperate hope that they will finally be able to be their authentic selves in retirement (assuming that they evade stress-induced health issues and live to see that milestone).
The weight of these lofty goals they have been socialized to pursue seems to create a visceral pain, relieved only when they come to truly believe that this is not the only narrative.
At times I fear that my identity as a woman is threatening to these men. My professional role creates positional power and posits me as the individual with more expertise in the topic at hand. For men who have been raised to believe that they should always have the answers, never seek out resources, and trust that life will fall into place simply based on their gender identity, it can be confusing to admit the limitations of their knowledge, ask for help, and obtain that help from a person of a gender identity that has been systematically deemed “less-than” by society. When these men present as white, my identity as a person of color can create further tensions between how they’ve been taught to perceive people who look like me and how I actually show up.
However, over time it has become clear that my role as a woman can be leveraged to create a safe and productive space for these conversations to encourage men finding their authentic selves, exploring and redefining their gender identities in their own terms. While some male-identified clients may express doubts about my authority on career development, many of them realize that my office is not a place where they have to perform a certain version of gender expression to be welcome. Men often feel pressure to wear masks around other men, or women they intend to pursue romantically. I can serve as an objective and safe space for them to take off their masks, breathe, and realign. I can help men to live outside of the excruciating and unrealistic confines of the man box.
I recently met with a group of men to discuss careers and masculinity. One of the participants shared a painful story about his daily cognizance of the amount of debt he’ll be graduating from college with and the stress of finding gainful employment to pay down his debt. After several minutes of dialogue with the group, we were able to present a two-fold approach to calm his anxiety – students graduate each year and obtain meaningful jobs that pay the bills; and there were factors in his control that could set him up for post-graduation success.
Although he had experienced the daily reality of the cost of his education, it was clear that this was the first time that he had expressed his concerns publicly outside of his friend circle. Also, this student needed permission to take control of his career process. Finding out that his career wasn’t just something happening to him but one that he could and must steer was welcome news. He may not be able to impact economic growth or workforce development in this country, but he could certainly polish off his resume and attend networking events.
Men do not want a limited gender expression any more than women want to suffer the consequences of such narrowly defined ideals of masculinity. When working with men on vocational decisions, we can support healthy career development by simply giving men permission to ask for help and encouraging them to explore their own desires outside of the confining expectations of the world around them. This has been some of my most effective work as a career counselor.
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Photo by Flickr/HighwaysEngland