More Reflections on Being a Male Minority

In School Nutrition’s June/July 2014 issue, several school lunch “dudes” shared their perspectives on being a man in a woman-dominated profession. Space prevented us from running all the interviews in the print version of “Strangers in a Strange Land,” by Penny McLaren. Read on for more insights.

Jeff Proulx
Man of the Moment
Jeff Proulx, SNS, is supervisor of food and nutrition services for Washington County Public Schools, in Hagerstown, Md., a post he has held for six years. He works with two men within his department who are assistant supervisors, but overall the department is about 90% female. But the history of this particular department is fairly unique in the school nutrition profession: There has been a man running the department for decades, Proulx reports, citing two other male supervisors who preceded him. This meant that no one on his staff found it particularly notable when he joined the department. That he is a man running the department is a non-issue.

“My predecessor was a man, and before him the department was led by another man who was truly a legend in the state,” Proulx says. “The image that they left helps to set the tone of the department. I have simply been able to walk on the shoulders of those who came before me.” As a result, “I didn’t have to market myself to the staff,” he notes. “My credentials were able to speak for me.” Those credentials include six years as director at school district in Pennsylvania; he had been the second man to run the department in that district, as well. So Proulx has found that gender has never really been an issue at any time in his school-based career.

Prior to schools, he worked for several years in hotels and restaurants, and that may prove to have been the more significant transition—in some surprising ways. “My sense is that we are more professionally based in school [foodservice],” asserts Proulx. “We are held to a higher standard, and there are things that go on in the private sector that are not acceptable here. Things [can be] loosy-goosy in the hospitality industry. I have told my HR person [in the district] that I could tell stories that would make your hair stand on end.”

Proulx takes pride in the professionalism of the school nutrition staff, holding all of his staff members in equal high regard. “I treat them as the professionals they are, regardless of gender,” he says. “I am blessed with a great staff. My belief is that as the leader of the department, I must treat people with respect. I trust they will follow through on what is expected of them. This is my team, male or female, red or green, or anything else,” he says.

He doesn’t believe that he’s changed his leadership style to manage a female majority. The bottom line, he says, is communication. In addition to communicating his expectations, “I want to hear from them,” Proulx emphasizes. “My open-door policy helps to soften that relationship. Or I will go talk to them on their turf, rather than always making them come to me.” While some employees may be nervous about talking to Proulx, “I say to them, ‘I am here for you.’”

Michael Peck
Man About Town
Michael Peck is Boston strong. He needs to be as director of food and nutrition services for a complex and controversial urban school district, where he’s been since 2011. But his tenure in the school nutrition profession stretches back to 1995, so Peck is no newcomer to the challenges of this business, and he tackles the challenges unique to Boston armed with a degree in nutrition, culinary school experience and school nutrition stints in Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh.

In his first school job, he was needled by some friends. “One friend always asked me, ‘So, how many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches did you make today?’ It is not easy to take the ribbing.” But his family has been supportive, especially his father, a 1956 graduate of Boston school district. “He is incredibly proud of me,” says Peck.

After his tenure in Washington, D.C., where a fair number of men worked in the school nutrition department, the predominance of women working in the Boston Public Schools operation surprised him. Nonetheless, “Whether I am working with men or women—or older or younger staff—it doesn’t matter,” Peck says. “They know that I have a good knowledge of school foodservice and the proper skill set for the job.”

It doesn’t mean that Peck has always been immune to the occasional discomforts of being “the only guy in the room” in this business. “It makes you realize what it is like for women who might be the only female in a group of male co-workers,” he notes. “Until you experience it, you don’t know what it is like.” He recollects an “aha!” moment back in Washington, D.C. where at a department head meeting, he realized he was the only white man in the room. “I admit I missed part of the meeting just thinking about that,” he says. Reflecting on this minority status “hopefully makes me respect the fact that everyone has value, no matter what you bring to the table, no matter what your background.”

More troubling than being a lunch dude among lunch ladies is the discrimination Peck has experienced as a gay man, with the worst incidents coming from students. “In Pittsburgh I came close to being a victim of a hate crime,” he recounts. “You’d be surprised how mean kids can be. Some of the kids have a good grasp of hate. It is the limited exposure to others in their lives that creates their small world.” To Peck’s credit, such experiences “only makes me more tolerant of others, though.”

Today, Peck’s staff-related challenges center more on working with three bargaining units associated with the school nutrition department as well as with making a number of fresh changes to the operation. “Change is hard,” Peck admits. “It is often met with resistance. You just have to remind staff that there will be benefits to change. I tell them, ‘You would be surprised what you can do.’ This department has grown so much and accomplished so much, and we have lot to show for it.”

Despite the challenges, Peck shares the same love for school nutrition as his male and female counterparts all across the country. “This profession is so rewarding, in that you get to feed kids,” he concludes.

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