Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 2003 / 15 Kislev, 5764

Jane R. Eisner

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Entice men into volunteer work | (KRT) Dan Koken is a student in my class at the University of Pennsylvania this semester. A strapping senior from Colorado, he's your basic guy's guy: president of his fraternity, Penn rugby player, high school wrestler. He also enjoys helping disadvantaged children, so he has tutored underprivileged kids in Philadelphia and volunteered at a middle school in Camden.

His volunteer work last summer at an orphanage for abandoned and abused children in Guatemala was a natural extension of this interest. But one aspect of the experience surprised him: There were hardly any other men. Only two others, to be exact, in a group of 17.

As Koken's peers flock to community service - out of the goodness of their hearts or the requirements of their schools - a disturbing gender gap is becoming evident. Even for a generation reared in the most egalitarian society the United States has ever seen, volunteer work largely continues to be women's work.

While young women are directing their energies into service, young men are the ones embracing politics. A nationwide survey of elected leaders 35 years old or younger, released last spring by Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics, found that a whopping 85 percent were men. (And mostly white, Christian, and wealthier than the general population, but we'll save those aspects for another day.)

Sure, there are the exceptions: the guys who coach basketball teams and hammer nails at Habitat for Humanity sites, or play with sick kids at the Ronald McDonald House, as Koken has done. (Not to mention the women who run for office.) But the gender gap is noticeable enough in the service community that the Corporation for National and Community Service has published a guide for organizations seeking to recruit more male volunteers.

Much of the evidence is anecdotal, but it adds up: Of City Year corps members, who devote a year to serving gritty, urban neighborhoods, 58 percent are female, 42 percent are male. The Write On group at Penn, whose members coach public school kids in writing skills, is predominantly female. So are many of the summer programs that send high school students into impoverished communities to build schools and homes.

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Early Thanksgiving morning, when I dropped off one of my daughters to join other students serving breakfast at a homeless shelter, I did a quick survey of the group huddled in the school parking lot. Yep, mostly girls.

"Service is a nurturing idea: feeding, clothing, teaching," says Steven A. Culbertson, president and chief executive officer of Youth Service America, which promotes volunteer opportunities for young people. "We've got to make these programs more user-friendly to guys, to appeal more to men's egos and skills."

Indeed, the Corporation for National and Community Service guide to recruiting men notes just these obstacles: Many men must be persuaded to overcome "the breadwinner syndrome" that approves of work only if it is paid. They need positive reinforcement for their nurturing efforts, and that, too, is not often found in volunteering with society's downtrodden.

Dan Koken says he's received nothing but praise for his volunteer efforts. He thinks that he's avoided ridicule because of his "traditionally macho activities and characteristics" and that more men like him should be part of the public perception of volunteerism to counter the impression that it is mostly women's work. The guide agrees, suggesting even that billboards, advertisements, public-service announcements, and posters depict male volunteers in a positive light.

Amen to that. Young people today have the highest rates of volunteering of any age group in our society, and for many, community service is the central expression of their citizenship. What a tragedy if stubborn gender stereotypes get in the way of these noble and needed deeds.

Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.

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