Scott R. Mueller admits he is used to talking about “guy stuff” in class, with guy friends. Nothing, he says, that girls would normally hear.
Yet last year, through a fateful arrangement of the class rolls, his familiar world vanished. Mr. Mueller, then a high school junior, signed up for a yearlong elective class in health care, only to discover he was the solitary male among 21 students. “For a couple days,” he said, “I didn’t really know what to say.”
When the school year ended, though, Mr. Mueller, now a senior at Deerfield Public School in Deerfield, Mich., was honored for his lone-male status. He was one of several students to receive the Breaking Traditions award, a recognition the state Department of Labor and Economic Growth gives to students who enroll and perform well in courses that are “nontraditional for their gender,” based on national statistics.
Girls tend to dominate vocational classes in health and cosmetology, for instance, while boys’ participation tends to be greater in such areas as automotive repair and electricity. Some blame discrimination, subtle or not. Mr. Mueller’s interest in health care was sparked by a medical problem of his own: a recurrent bone cyst in his arm.
The Breaking Traditions program has been recognized by the Association for Career and Technical Education, in Alexandria, Va., as well as two national organizations that promote gender equity. Both high school and college students are eligible; they are nominated by school officials on the basis of their technical skills and ability to serve as role models.
The number of Breaking Traditions nominees has increased over time, said Norma R. Tims, the gender-equity coordinator in the state labor department. In 2006, the state will honor up to 125 students. Female students tend to receive more awards, she said, mostly because more male-dominated vocational areas exist for them to cross into. The benefits of breaking gender barriers for both sexes include not only the potential for higher pay, but also entrepreneurial opportunities, Ms. Tims said.
“It builds confidence in the student, and it builds their ability,” she said. “We hope it’s a springboard for them.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2006 edition of Education Week