The next time you’re at work, look around. How many of your fellow nurses are men? I teach nursing and in a class of forty students, I have only three students who identify as men. None of the forty faculty members at my school of nursing are male. Back in the 1960s, only 2 percent of nurses were male, but now the number has risen to 13 percent.1 Why is nursing so female-centric?
We were taught in nursing school that the first nurses were male caregivers in Ancient Rome, tending the sick and dying during the Crusades. Male nurses were also found in the Civil War in both the Union and Confederate armies. The shift to an all-female workforce didn’t begin until the Army Nurse Corps (ANC), established in 1901, banned men from serving as nurses. It wasn’t until 1955 that they commissioned the first male officer.2
You may have seen a movie called Meet the Parents, in which Ben Stiller plays Greg Focker, a male nurse who perpetuates stereotypes that women are nurses and men are doctors. If you look at Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs and ER, the stereotypes continue. We might see a female doctor, but never a male nurse. In a survey of male nurses, 70 percent stated that gender stereotypes are the main barrier to entering the field of nursing.1 Male nurse respondents indicated they were influenced by the misperception that the profession of nursing is not “appropriate” for men.
In an article in American Nurse Today, David Foley shares some of his experiences as a male nurse. “The pressure to create a masculine identity within a historically female profession proves overwhelming and they [male nurses] flee for the operating room, emergency department or intensive care unit.” Male nursing students may face questions from family and friends about choosing nursing and may face challenges to their masculinity because women are traditionally seen as nurturers, while men are in more dominant leadership roles. Foley shared a story about a student who was actively discouraged from going into a less technical discipline in nursing with comments like, “You’ll never be accepted,” “Why would you want to make your life so hard,” and “What’s wrong with critical care? You’ll make more money.”3
Edward Bennett, named 2018 Student Nurse of the Year by the National Black Nurses Association, said, “I’ve definitely gotten pushback for being a black male nurse. Other people look at me like, ‘why would you want to be a nurse when you can be doctor?” Bennett continues to advocate for changing misconceptions by reminding prospective male nurses that, “You work with your hands, you think critically and you advocate for your patients every day.”4
Male nurses face a particularly steep challenge in obstetrics and OB-GYN. Even if they overcome stereotypes about who should pursue this field of nursing, often they cannot obtain access to patients. As an instructor I have seen it happen many times – a woman giving birth or having a pelvic exam doesn’t want a male nursing student to observe or care for her.3
In a survey of 462 undergraduate nursing students in Canada, male students demonstrated significantly lower scores on the efficacy subscale, suggesting that some men experience feelings of marginalization and discrimination.5
According to the IOM report, The Future of Nursing: Leading Health, Advancing Change, we must find a solution. Men provide unique perspectives and skills that are crucial to the profession and to society as a whole. We need to place a greater emphasis on recruiting men into the field. We know that patients are more receptive to healthcare providers of similar cultural and ethnic backgrounds.1 Male patients may feel more comfortable discussing certain conditions, especially those related to sexual and reproductive health, with other men, than with women. The World Health Organization identifies the “men’s health gap” – men visit the doctor less frequently and are less likely to ask questions or bring up concerns during appointments. “Having a male nurse could help open them up” says Bryan Smith, president of the American Association for Men in Nursing.6
The nursing shortage is another reason to recruit men. The president of the American Assembly for Men in Nursing, William T. Lecher, states that “The shortage of the future will likely not be solved unless men are part of the equation.”1
Elias Provencio-Vasquez, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Executive Nurse Fellow, shares that when he was met with resistance from some female patients in the maternity ward early in his career as a student at the University of Texas, in El Paso, “We overcame that by presenting ourselves as students, and our faculty members were very professional and very supportive."1
Bennett recommends creating pipeline programs for male students at predominantly African American high schools to diversify the profession in multiple ways.4
To encourage more men to join the profession, the AAMN conducts outreach, challenging local chapters to reach as many male middle and high school students as possible through classroom visits, career fairs and more. The AAMN also offers an award to the best schools for men in nursing to recognize programs that have made efforts in recruiting and retaining male students. Award winners include Nebraska Methodist, Duke, Goldfarb, New York University, Rush, Rutgers, Vanderbilt and West Coast University. In addition, the AAMN enlists members to guest lecture at nursing schools. Only 6 percent of faculty are men. Having a lecture from a male nurse can have a powerful impact on male students who are feeling isolated and alone. “Just seeing a male being successful in nursing, even though it seems like something so small, can really trigger a sense of belonging.” says Smith.4
Nurse educators and preceptors must acknowledge that gender bias exists. We need to refrain from gender-biased language and teaching practices that may discourage male nurses from embracing a career in any of the specialties of nursing.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
I’d love to hear from male nurses out there – what has your experience been? Did you find support when you needed it? Do you have ideas for how we can recruit more men into nursing and remove some of the misconceptions that are preventing a diverse workforce?
Read Gender Bias in Health Care to learn more about gender bias in health care.
Male nurses break through barriers to diversity profession
Men in Nursing: History, Stereotypes, and the Gender Pay Gap
How to Avoid Gender Bias in Nursing Education
Bohanon M. (2019, January 8). Men in nursing: A crucial profession continues to lack gender diversity.
Sedgwick, M. G. & Kellett, P. (2015). Exploring masculinity and marginalization of male undergraduate nursing students’ experience of belonging during clinical experiences. Journal of Nursing Education, 54(3):121-129.
American Association for Men in Nursing.