What does it mean to be a man in Student Affairs? I must preface this post by admitting that I have never really spoken to other men about what it means to be a man in this field. I won’t generalize the masculine Student Affairs professional experience or try to assume that what I have experienced provides the lens through which other men see their experience, but I can be honest and say that I haven’t given the relationship between my gender and my job much thought. But that’s the way it often is with men, right? – we don’t think of ourselves as gendered beings.
We have about 35-40 staff members who regularly attend Student Life Division functions at my institution. Of those, only 5 are men. So do I think about gender at work? Sure. When I look around the room in most meetings and see only women, it crosses my mind. But more as an observation and less about the power or influence I may have without even being fully aware of it. After all, I did not create the system that gives me an advantage as a man, but I recognize that I am able to simply follow my privilege through the door each morning – something many of my colleagues can’t experience.
When I do think of what it means to be a man in Student Affairs, I reflect on my personality and the stereotyped personality of men in this field. I’m 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. I’m not a small man. Combine that with being introverted and much more likely to listen than speak and I have earned the tag of “being intimidating.” Intimidating is not a phrase we often place on those in Student Affairs.
Colin Stewart wrote a post for the #MenInSA blog this month and he said “Being a man in Student Affairs means constantly challenging stereotypes that men aren’t all aggressors, dominant, jokers, jocks, idiots or strong silent types. Men can follow, listen, be intelligent, creative, be sensitive, be affectionate and be good partners.” I appreciate Mr. Stewart’s message because it highlights an unfortunate perspective many in our field have about the need to have all of those qualities be mutually exclusive. We need jocks, we need jokers and we need strong silent types in this field to relate to our male students and bridge the gap between who many of our students are and the men who serve them. Jocks, jokers, strong silent types and even “bros” are capable of following, listening, being creative and sensitive, etc. Contrary to popular belief, being a bro isn’t an affliction; being a bro is a complicated and important part of a man’s learned behavior. If we are able to understand how our masculine identity intersects with other aspects of our lives, we have the ability to help our bros evolve.
The man mask is most often used to describe how men put on a façade in order to live out socially-constructed definitions of what it means to be manly. Men – often college men – put on the mask to align actions with what they perceive culture’s understanding of masculinity to be. The stereotypical man mask is not the image we have of men in Student Affairs. My experience shows me that many male professionals in Student Affairs are forced to put on the man mask to connect with male students. But I find that the mask I put on is one that allows me to fall into what is assumed of men in Student Affairs – “touchy feely,” outwardly sensitive, emotionally expressive. It’s not that I don’t possess these attributes, it’s that I feel as though I need to put on the “Student Affairs man mask” in order to live up to the assumed role I should play as a professional.
In an ironic twist, I often feel disadvantaged by not being a gay man. You laugh, but I have been asked many times over the years if I am gay (and often they point to my earring as some sort of indicator. No joke). When I sheepishly admit to being heterosexual, I hear “I kind of assumed most men in res life were gay.” Because there’s an unfair assumption that in order to do Student Affairs work well, male professionals must possess qualities that are generally associated with gay men (another unfair assumption). So how do I reconcile society’s expectations of me as a man versus what a male Student Affairs professional should be versus who I truly believe myself to be? That’s a lot of existential thinking, even for a strong silent type.
We’ve come to understand that the “guy code” can be detrimental to developing healthy masculine identities and that “bro culture” inhibits the men on our campuses from expressing emotion, demonstrating care and understanding their privilege. But what if my default setting is rooted in the code? What if I feel as though I’ve evolved to place of comfort in understanding my masculinity and can still feel connected to other men by being a “bro”? And not the hipster kind of ironic “being a bro,” but actually connecting with and understanding the role that the “guy code” plays in the journey to manhood.
Do I have privilege in my profession because I’m a man? Absolutely. Seen or unseen, conscious or not, I do. But the distinct advantage I have within my own gender is one of understanding how men in Student Affairs can play multiple roles. Feel like that’s not authentic? I’d argue playing multiple (but connected) roles as a man in this field makes you infinitely more genuine than the man who simply finds one mask he likes. So to all the men in Student Affairs, don’t strive to be the anti-bro – understand the vital role that both the man mask and the Student Affairs man mask play in your lives as professionals.