I found this article about affirmative action for male nurses in Norway very interesting. (Full disclaimer: everything I know about Norway was out of date a thousand years ago. Norwegians or people who know things about Norway, feel free to correct my analysis in the comments and I’ll update the post.)
In Norway, a couple different organizations, including the University of Oslo and the Gender Balance in Research committee, are considering affirmative action for men in the form of “sex points”– basically, an equally qualified man will be more likely to be admitted than a woman– in fields such as psychology, orthodontics, and nursing that are heavily gender-biased female. The use of “sex points” in fields gendered male, such as engineering, is already well-accepted. The University of Oslo decided not to use sex points but to recruit men to those disciplines, and the Gender Balance in Research committee endorsed the use of sex points for male nurses and, in fact, in any field where one gender comprises less than 30% of the students.
I approve of affirmative action for men in some disciplines wholeheartedly. Consider male nurses, for instance. Many men will be more comfortable around a male nurse than a female, particularly since nurses often have to deal with genitalia and other intimate body parts. Boys who see a male nurse will learn that they too can be nurses when they grow up, and having more men in the classes will make nursing a more welcoming field for future generations of men.
Many people are against affirmative action, because the people with the best grades should get in regardless of gender and it devalues the degree. I disagree, however. I do think that affirmative action is a temporary measure– if the genders are about fifty/fifty in a field, we should stop doing affirmative action. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need it. In the real world, there are structural and social barriers to some people of equal aptitude getting into a field; all affirmative action does is act as a blunt instrument to control for these barriers. In particular, including gender as a consideration in the admissions process won’t cause actively unqualified people to be accepted (the same way, say, a quota might). A slightly less qualified man might be admitted to the nursing program, but not an unqualified man.
In addition, some people are going to think that men are privileged and we should only have affirmative action for less privileged groups. (I think that’s an unnecessarily reductive way to look at gender, but let’s go with it.) I urge them not to think about politics but to think about raw self-interest. Most of the female-dominated majors are associated with lower pay (but, of course, often have other virtues, such as flexibility, reliability of employment, job satisfaction, or helping others). If we get more men into nursing and education, then we lower the pay gap. Isn’t that exactly what you want? We have to attack the problem from both ends– not simply encouraging women to go into engineering, but encouraging men to go into nursing.