She can, He can is an original AsiaOne series where we showcase Singaporean men who are working in female-dominated jobs and their empowering personal journey in overcoming stereotypes.
In his 20-year career, social worker Desmurn Lim has touched the lives of many.
He's also touched a dead body.
The 45-year-old tells AsiaOne that his encounter with a corpse remains one of the most memorable experiences in his career, but it's for a heartwarming reason.
Back in his palliative care days, he would be on call to support the family members of the deceased.
One particular case had him trying to comfort the distraught granddaughter of an elderly man who had just died in his home.
The little girl had run into her grandfather's room, and would not stop crying, Desmurn recalls.
"What I did was I actually knelt also in front of the deceased, and touched his body, just like what the girl was doing. So when that happened, the girl actually felt that, hey, there's someone there."
She eventually calmed down and was able to talk to him about her grandfather, he says.
"So I thought that was unforgettable because I was literally touching a dead body at that point of time. And because there was that connection."
From Aunt Agony to social worker
Desmurn is currently the Director at Big Love Child Protection Specialist Centre, a programme by Montfort Care. And in some shape or form, he's spent the better part of his life helping others.
His penchant for altruism started even before his stints in palliative care and school social work, he shares.
In primary and secondary school, he was always listening to his friends' problems and helping them solve them.
"Then one day, my mum actually asked me, 'Since you like to help people so much, why don't you think about some work that could actually get you to help others too?'"
Desmurn toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher, but a social work module in university won him over — he didn't just want to help people academically, he explains.
Today, as part of his job, he manages and supports the social workers in his team as they handle child abuse cases.
All in a day's work
The emotional strain that comes with the job — and other helping professions such as counselling and nursing — is one that's well-documented in research, and stems from long periods of working with those in distress.
For one, Desmurn shares that it's heart wrenching for him and his team when they're faced with kids stuck in abusive situations, many of them still not able to fully articulate their predicament.
Another stressor is pushback from the families they're trying to assist, he says.
"So some of the common complaints that I do get could be saying, 'You guys are interfering in my life. You are coming in to change or destroy my family.'"
Rather than taking it personally, though, Desmurn tells us he empathises with their fear of change, and often references a line from the movie Nanny McPhee: "When you need me, but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me, but no longer need me, then I have to go."
Men can do it too
Like many other helping professions, social work is a female-dominated field. As of Dec 31, 2020, there were 1,565 accredited female social workers in Singapore, and just 519 male ones.
Desmurn tells us he's used to the gender imbalance. Back in his university days, he was already outnumbered five to one by the women in his course, he says.
Women are typically stereotyped as more empathetic and compassionate, qualities that any good social worker should have. On the other hand, men might be perceived as being less able to engage relationally with clients, says Desmurn.
His hope, though, is that things will change, and that more young people — of all genders — join the field.
"In this day and age, I don't think a job is designated for just a certain gender. And being a man, I think we bring in a different perspective, and a certain understanding of fellow men too."
And as for those who judge his career choice, Desmurn has one thing to say: "My challenge is for them to come and experience it. You wouldn't know. That might change your whole perspective on things."
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