Ever noticed the dearth of male elementary school teachers, especially in early grades? So has sociology professor Paul Sargent—and he’s committed much of his research to finding out why some occupations are gendered the way they are.

“I study gender as a social structure and how we continue to separate roles,” Sargent said.

“It sort of reveals the truth of the matter—that the occupations have an agenda. In some respects, this is the person who we think should be in this position and it often has very little to do with that person’s skills or persistence, or the things that promote success in that occupation.”

Auspicious beginnings

It all started years ago, when Sargent was working on his master’s thesis here at San Diego State. At the time, he was studying media effects on children. Every time he visited an elementary school for his research study, he noticed how few male teachers there were.

As a paramedic, his first career, Sargent worked with both police—a male-dominated profession—and nurses, a largely female profession. But, the differences he saw there were nothing in comparison to what he saw in early childhood education.

“I felt almost like an outsider at the schools, even though as a parent, I frequented my children’s elementary schools,” Sargent said.

“In chatting with the few men I did encounter, the sixth grade teachers—the men who are in elementary schools are clustered at those higher grades—in talking to them, I got a sense that not all was right. But I didn’t go into details.”

From curiosity to research

But, his curiosity didn’t end there. Years later, Sargent recalled those old conversations.

“I read an article by another sociologist and he interviewed men in gendered occupations. As I read it—especially the parts about teachers—it didn’t resonate with what I’d heard from those teachers. There was a discrepancy in these competing narratives.”

And this is what drove Sargent to the research he conducts today at the SDSU Children’s Center. Currently, he’s observing how men and women interact with preschool-age children. The work is conducted by student and assistant researchers, all of whom are female for a surprising reason.

When men enter the childcare center, they become a distraction, Sargent said. The children want to know why he’s there and what he’s doing. But, when a woman is taping the observations, the children ignore her, Sargent said. In terms of getting the observation done, it’s simply impossible to do with a man, he said. While women blend into an environment with young children, men stick out like a sore thumb.

Occupations are gendered

While the SDSU Children’s Center study is ongoing, Sargent has made some conclusions on highly gendered professions in prior research. There is a general belief that men and women can do any job equally, but that isn’t so according to what he’s learned over the years, Sargent said.

“We’ve added credibility to the general belief that occupations are gendered themselves,” he said.

“There are clearly gendered expectation for members of almost any occupations, but very few of them are mutual for both men and women.”