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The Stigma of Men in Nursing

Updated | Published

Barriers and stereotypes of male nurses are discussed. Males who choose nursing as a career face unique barriers.

by Nurse Beth Nurse Beth, MSN (Columnist)

Specializes in Med Surg, Tele, ICU, Ortho. Has 30 years experience.

What is holding men from becoming nurses?

The Stigma of Men in Nursing

Here is a prelude which is actually a prologue. 🙂

I am writing this edit after the article below was published, based on the well -written feedback. While I pinged off a recent article and point of view written by a nursing student at Penn State, my sources, as pointed out, are old, and don't reflect the current state. As a writer, I intend to bring forward more well-researched info, and this article missed the mark.

There is far less stereotyping, especially at the clinical level, where male nurses are often embraced, than at the social level. One reader did say, however, that more often that not, he is asked if he's the MD or if he's going to become an MD.

I don't believe that men in nursing is a non-issue. Perhaps at the individual experience level at the bedside...but the bigger picture to me is how the slow but steady influx of males will influence the profession. I think more men will benefit the profession in many ways, and I also think gains will be made that a feminized profession was unable to accomplish. As one reader said, male privilege does exist.

The comments so far have been well-thought out and respectful. I appreciate the feedback.

“Caring, nurturing, comforting...healing touch. Women's work.” These are words and feminine imagery used to describe nursing, a profession so strongly identified as female that it’s odd to realize, in ancient times, nurses were men. However, since the time of Florence Nightingale, males have been a minuscule minority in nursing.

What holds men back from becoming nurses, even in this modern day? One reason is the fear of almost certain stigma. Taking on a feminine role affords men an ambiguous social status. Family and friends may disapprove.

As a result of stigma, role strain, and isolation, very few men join the profession. Of those that do, more than 85% as compared to 35% of women drop out or fail (Poliafico,1998).

Men in nursing are at once advantaged and disadvantaged. While nurses are considered subordinate to doctors, male physicians treat male nurses better than females or at least with more respect. Ironically, male nurses command higher salaries than their female counterparts and hold proportionately more prestigious positions (Evans, J., & Frank, B. 2003). This may partially be due to the fact that males gravitate to the highest-paid specialties, such as nurse anesthetist.

Stereotypes and Barriers

In healthcare, men are expected to be doctors. Not only is nursing female-identified, but it is also considered by many to be gender-inappropriate for males. Hiring male nurses in labor and delivery and nursery is close to taboo in many places. Male nurses are expected to work ED and highly technical or high-acuity areas such as ICU.

Men who choose nursing face questionable social status as many people do not consider nursing a respectable role for males. Some believe male nurses are misfits who aren't successful or capable in any other career.

Media portrayal perpetuates the image of nurses as exclusively female. Male nurses are non-existent or ridiculed, as in the movie Meet the Parents with Ben Stiller. Male nurses may be subjected to curiosity and even suspicion as to why they are a nurse from their patients. They may feel they have to defend their masculinity and may distance from their female colleagues in order to do so.

Homosexual

Even though men choose nursing for career opportunity, salary, and job security, they can be categorized as homosexual based on their career choice. The excerpt below is taken from a study of men in nursing.

Robin: “There’s sometimes I’ll go in and see a large male that’s used to looking after himself and he has a cardiac problem. I’m not going to go in and wash his back...it comes back to this whole homophobic thing” Evans, J., & Frank, B. (2003).p. 282

Touch

Touching is an accepted form of caring, but men are stereotyped as sexual aggressors and fear being accused of sexual misconduct. Unlike female nurses, who are free to touch and show emotion, male nurses have to be careful with touch. Nursing school does not equip males to negotiate such gender conflict, and trains them from a completely female perspective.

Acceptance by Female Nurses

Male presence in a female-identified profession creates tension between the sexes on the job. This is partly handled by the women expecting traditional behaviors from the men- help with physical tasks such as lifting, and acknowledging them as leaders.

But whether or not female nurses are ready to accept large numbers of men into the profession is unclear (O’Lynn, C. E. 2004). Would men take over the only feminine stronghold in the paternalistic field of healthcare, climbing the career ladder at a fast pace, on the backs of females?

Would the nursing profession benefit from more males and do female nurses expect men to improve the status of nursing? Will it bring respect and gains that have been lacking because nursing is a female profession? And if so, is that not a sad commentary?

Future of Men in Nursing

The United States Census Bureau in 2016 reported 11% of the nation’s 3 million nurses to be male. While a small percent, it’s a significant increase from the 1970 statistics where only 2.7% of nurses were male. The American Assembly for Men in Nursing, together with the IOM, has set a goal of 20% male enrollment in U.S. nursing programs by the year 2020.

To help encourage men into nursing, it’s important to speak up about negative media portrayals and make nursing education truly male-friendly, addressing their needs. Men need role models and mentors. High school guidance counselors have a part to play in introducing nursing to all young people.

In the end, men bring a different and enriching perspective. Perceptions take a long time to change but will change by sheer numbers of males in the field as it did with female doctors. The presence of male nurses is no doubt increasing, and patients benefit from the increased balance.

References

Evans, J., & Frank, B. (2003). Contradictions and tensions: Exploring relations of masculinities in the numerically female-dominated nursing profession. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 11(3), 277-292.

O’Lynn, C. E. (2004). Gender-based barriers for male students in nursing education programs: Prevalence and perceived importance. Journal of Nursing Education, 43(5), 229-236.

Poliafico, J. K. (1998). Nursing's gender gap. RN, 61(10), 39-43.

Ryan, S., & Porter, S. (1993). Men in nursing: a cautionary comparative critique. Nursing Outlook, 44(6), 262-67.

Nurse Beth is an Educator, Writer, Blogger, and Subject Matter Expert who blogs about nursing career advice at nursecode.com.

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144 Comment(s)

labordude, BSN, RN

Specializes in L&D, OBED, NICU, Lactation. Has 15 years experience.

This is going to be a fun discussion post. I've written several papers on this topic and have spoken about it to many students. The majority of my focus has been on men in the obstetrical nursing arena, but the overall idea of men going into nursing is also hugely important. A lot of your literature is very old relative to what would be allowed by a professor today. O'Lynn has published additional papers following the one that was written and there is substantial literature from the 2008-2010 period focusing on the changing image of male nursing students and looking at the potential biases they may face, but also the role strain in particular as society has grappled with more men wanting to go into areas like nursing and teaching. I think the biggest differentiator between those two is that there is more physical touch involved in nursing and that has been a tougher place to cross the gap.

The New York Times has done several articles on the slow, but growing influx of men into nursing. I guess I've been lucky enough not to have faced or felt much bias over the years toward myself, though I have seen it directed toward some students over the past few years which I've been quick to correct.

An important piece of this whole discussion is not simply to say "we need more men in nursing" but to understand why that would be beneficial. I speak proudly of my career and have talked at my daughter's school on several occasions. Each time more and more boys talk to me afterward about their interest and I think it's great.

NICU Guy, BSN, RN

Specializes in NICU. Has 6 years experience.

1 hour ago, Nurse Beth said:

Hiring male nurses in labor and delivery and nursery is close to taboo in many places.

At least in my experience in the NICU, the opposite is true. NICU managers are very receptive if on a rare occasion that a male nurse applies for a job.

1 hour ago, Nurse Beth said:

Men who choose nursing face questionable social status as many people do not consider nursing a respectable role for males. Some believe male nurses are misfits who aren't successful or capable in any other career.

I have never experienced a negative comment from family, friends, strangers, or parents of my patients about being a nurse. I have had parents request me to be the primary caregiver for their baby even though I have never taken care of their baby. They base their request purely on a recommendation of other parents that they interact with in the NICU.

1 hour ago, Nurse Beth said:

Media portrayal perpetuates the image of nurses as exclusively female. Male nurses are non-existent or ridiculed, as in the movie Meet the Parents with Ben Stiller.

Although, the TV drama Code Black did portrayed Luis Guzman's character as an ER nurse in a positive light. So, the media may be starting to change their portrayal of male nurses.

15 years, have not ever experienced anybody linking my being a nurse to my masculinity.

I would find it pretty amusing.

labordude, BSN, RN

Specializes in L&D, OBED, NICU, Lactation. Has 15 years experience.

2 hours ago, NICU Guy said:

At least in my experience in the NICU, the opposite is true. NICU managers are very receptive if on a rare occasion that a male nurse applies for a job.

Sadly, your experience is the the more rare. Even with all my experience and certifications, etc I have still had places flat out tell me they won't hire males in those areas. Luckily they are few and far between. What is more likely that silent rejection is the most common thing, but there is still a lack of men applying into the areas like OB and nursery. I never had an issue or a question with any NICU I ever worked in or applied to.

The bigger issue is how male students are introduced to the areas and their experiences there. Men can thrive in maternal/child health (see yours truly for example) but they need to be treated like any other student when it comes time for that clinical and that doesn't always happen.

On the flip-side, I have literally never had a patient question my sexuality, professionalism, motivation, or anything remotely like that. Which actually bears out with some of the research I've used in my papers that changing the mindsets of other healthcare workers is the hard part.

Male nurses are generally able to advance quickly as Managers and CRNA's for example.

We don't need time off for child-related matters the way women do. And bosses tend to see this as a good thing. Generally speaking.

barcode120x, ADN, BSN, RN

Specializes in Telemetry. Has 6 years experience.

11 hours ago, Nurse Beth said:

Men who choose nursing face questionable social status as many people do not consider nursing a respectable role for males. Some believe male nurses are misfits who aren't successful or capable in any other career.

Media portrayal perpetuates the image of nurses as exclusively female. Male nurses are non-existent or ridiculed, as in the movie Meet the Parents with Ben Stiller. Male nurses may be subjected to curiosity and even suspicion as to why they are a nurse from their patients. They may feel they have to defend their masculinity and may distance from their female colleagues in order to do so.

I think this far from the truth. I don't think there is much "stereotyping" at all in this day an age. Maybe 10+ years ago there was, but definitely not today. I have NEVER come across any MD, nurse, colleague, patient, family members, or personal life people where I had to show respect or did not receive any respect for being a male nurse. Quite the opposite actually. More often than note, I get asked if I'm going for my MD while other times patients think I'm the MD. Regardless, I have yet to across across a person that does not respect me for being a "male nurse." Don't think any of my male nursing colleagues have had this issue either. If anything, I think I feel more respected because I'm a male when talking to MD's, in person or on the phone as opposed to my female colleagues who've had bad experiences conversing with these MD's.

In regards to the 2 movies mentioned, I'm not offended by either of them and I loved those movies as a kid. They're still funny to this day. I think the concern today is how TV shows portray nurses in a downplayed/downgraded kind of way like in Grey's Anatomy, The Good Doctor, and The Resident. It's more important to view how hollywood is incorrectly presenting us nurses as a whole.

@ OP, the world of male nursing has changed the past several years and I'd say much of what you have mentioned in your article is old and may not necessarily portray to a majority of the male nursing field in this day an age. Good information though and I do recall reading about possible "male nurse stereotypes" back when I was in nursing school. Other than that, I'm chillin right now on my telemetry floor and have been the last 4 years.

RyanCarolinaBoy, ADN, BSN, MSN

Specializes in ICU. Has 16 years experience.

No offense, but you are using research data cited from articles that are 20 years old. This information is not accurate in my opinion.

Please find (and utilize) up to date research if you wish to be accurate. I find that as a man in nursing, you are probably not giving the most up to date statistics on this. I see lots of guy nurses around these days and I don’t hear any of this information you mention.

Jedrnurse, BSN, RN

Specializes in school nurse. Has 29 years experience.

1 hour ago, RyanCarolinaBoy said:

No offense, but you are using research data cited from articles that are 20 years old. This information is not accurate in my opinion.

Please find (and utilize) up to date research if you wish to be accurate. I find that as a man in nursing, you are probably not giving the most up to date statistics on this. I see lots of guy nurses around these days and I don’t hear any of this information you mention.

Agreed! It seems like there's no "there there" when this issue is brought up. Even if there is some validity, there are many more pressing issues facing the field of nursing.

I am sure that this thread will be long and interesting. For sure, the pay difference debate will come up, as will the idea that men being asked to lift and move things. Gender roles in a hierarchy, men lifting, etc... All hot topics around here.

But, I disagree with a lot of the premises. As somebody points out, the sources are nearly nearly 20 years old, meaning that the data used in those sources is likely older.

18 hours ago, Nurse Beth said:

Taking on a feminine role affords men an ambiguous social status.

This would be true, if nursing was still considered a purely feminine role. I live in an area that would never be considered progressive. It is simply not viewed that way. People are used to it.

18 hours ago, Nurse Beth said:

since the time of Florence Nightingale, males have been a minuscule minority in nursing.

Not really. One armed, redheaded, transgender nurses are a miniscule minority. I think we are around 10%

18 hours ago, Nurse Beth said:

As a result of stigma, role strain, and isolation, very few men join the profession. Of those that do, more than 85% as compared to 35% of women drop out or fail (Poliafico,1998).

The study cited relies on data older than some of my co-workers.

Does this come close to anybody's anecdotal experience? Anybody thinking this remains accurate- 85% drop out, yet the remaining 15% excell being paid on average more, more leadership positions, advanced certificatoins, etc...? Does that seem right in 2019?

18 hours ago, Nurse Beth said:

Men who choose nursing face questionable social status as many people do not consider nursing a respectable role for males.

Many? Sure, I'll buy that. Many people in this country also believe in alien abductions. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/new-survey-shows-nearly-half-of-americans-believe-in_b_59824c11e4b03d0624b0abe4

But, in neither case am I affected.

18 hours ago, Nurse Beth said:

Male nurses may be subjected to curiosity and even suspicion as to why they are a nurse from their patients. They may feel they have to defend their masculinity

Sure, maybe every now and then. As nurses, you will deal with all kinds of weird questions and beliefs- part of the job. Some people believe vaccines cause autism, some believe the earth is 5000 years old. But, if hearing a weird belief causes a man to feel the need to defend his masculinity, that man should get some help, as he has a bit of personal development work to do.

18 hours ago, Nurse Beth said:

Male presence in a female-identified profession creates tension between the sexes on the job. This is partly handled by the women expecting traditional behaviors from the men- help with physical tasks such as lifting, and acknowledging them as leaders.

As part of a team, I contribute what I can. While I am sure they are out there, I do not work with one woman who can lift as much as me. Realistically, they would have to be my size, or put on a backpack for a total weight of 185 lbs, and be strong enough to do pull ups. So, if you are a guy who is bothered by being asked to help lift and move, just get over it.

Similarly, if you are a guy who has a hard time taking direction from women, you picked a spectacularly bad career choice.

18 hours ago, Nurse Beth said:

But whether or not female nurses are ready to accept large numbers of men into the profession is unclear

Again- where are these nurses now? In reality, I believe I benefit from male privilege. Meaning I come into a situation with some positive assumptions about me, simply because I am a guy. Most of the men who have participated in discussions on this topic find they are accepted, and most of the women say they readily accept men.

While I believe at some point this was true, I just don't believe it now. We are not a discriminated minority.

Beth- I appreciate your providing points for discussion, but I think you are off base here. Gender issues have changed hugely in the past 20 years.

Edited by hherrn

GrumpyRN, NP

Specializes in Emergency Department. Has 39 years experience.

GrumpyRN, NP

Specializes in Emergency Department. Has 39 years experience.

23 minutes ago, hherrn said:

I am sure that this thread will be long and interesting. For sure, the pay difference debate will come up, as will the idea that men being asked to lift and move things. Gender roles in a hierarchy, men lifting, etc... All hot topics around here.

But, I disagree with a lot of the premises. As somebody points out, the sources are nearly nearly 20 years old, meaning that the data used in those sources is likely older.

This would be true, if nursing was still considered a purely feminine role. I live in an area that would never be considered progressive. It is simply not viewed that way. People are used to it.

Not really. One armed, redheaded, transgender nurses are a miniscule minority. I think we are around 10%

The study cited relies on data older than some of my co-workers.

Does this come close to anybody's anecdotal experience? Anybody thinking this remains accurate- 85% drop out, yet the remaining 15% excell being paid on average more, more leadership positions, advanced certificatoins, etc...? Does that seem right in 2019?

Many? Sure, I'll buy that. Many people in this country also believe in alien abductions. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/new-survey-shows-nearly-half-of-americans-believe-in_b_59824c11e4b03d0624b0abe4

But, in neither case am I affected.

Sure, maybe every now and then. As nurses, you will deal with all kinds of weird questions and beliefs- part of the job. Some people believe vaccines cause autism, some believe the earth is 5000 years old. But, if hearing a weird belief causes a man to feel the need to defend his masculinity, that man should get some help, as he has a bit of personal development work to do.

As part of a team, I contribute what I can. While I am sure they are out there, I do not work with one woman who can lift as much as me. Realistically, they would have to be my size, or put on a backpack for a total weight of 185 lbs, and be strong enough to do pull ups. So, if you are a guy who is bothered by being asked to help lift and move, just get over it.

Similarly, if you are a guy who has a hard time taking direction from women, you picked a spectacularly bad career choice.

Again- where are these nurses now? In reality, I believe I benefit from male privilege. Meaning I come into a situation with some positive assumptions about me, simply because I am a guy. Most of the men who have participated in discussions on this topic find they are accepted, and most of the women say they readily accept men.

While I believe at some point this was true, I just don't believe it now. We are not a discriminated minority.

Beth- I appreciate your providing points for discussion, but I think you are off base here. Gender issues have changed hugely in the past 20 years.

Amen brother/sister, thank you. You saved me writing a whole screed.

Edited by GrumpyRN
Changing gender assumption

mfdteacher, BSN

Specializes in ICU/ER. Has 40 years experience.

Indeed, a lot of the assumptions are dated. While a student in my BSN program, we few males were never taught to cath females and were limited in every day care scenarios (beds and baths). Later in grad school trying to do research on Males in Nursing, I was heavily criticized for looking into this subject. I did find states where males were not allowed by law in labor and delivery, "the woman chooses her doctor, but not her nurse". Further on in my career, I worked with a large municipal fire department teaching paramedics and EMTs. Many of the paramedics voiced interest or actually completed a nursing program with no concern for gender issues. The one issue that seems to remain is concerns about touching patients in appropriate ways. Female nurses tend to be allowed much more freedom to use compassionate touch than males. I find this more pervasive in the "Me too" era and seemingly based on some sort of inherent distrust of males in general. Just my two cents from a retired old RN proud of his profession.

Nurse Beth, MSN

Specializes in Med Surg, Tele, ICU, Ortho. Has 30 years experience.

Dear Readers, thank you for the comments. Your feedback is right on. I went back and added a paragraph at the beginning of the article thanks to your input. I hope you’ll read it- Nurse Beth

Truth66

Specializes in LTC & Teaching. Has 15 years experience.

I firmly believe that one of the biggest reasons why Nurses experience such abuse in their professions is because it's a female dominated profession. Do I agree with this, absolutely not. But the reality is that far too many employers view nurses as nothing more than a bunch of women, therefore not a priority.

Here locally, there was the issue of paramedics who experience violence on the job and it was litterally front page news about a month ago. Paramedics here are male dominated. Yet, for Nurses, it's almost a daily occurance with regards to experiencing violence on the job.

Unfortunately, I believe that the only way Nursese are going to be taken more seriously and respected is if there is more men in Nursing. Nurses need to be more assertive, yet most employers take advantage of the fact that women tend to be more passive and exploit Nurses.

labordude, BSN, RN

Specializes in L&D, OBED, NICU, Lactation. Has 15 years experience.

5 hours ago, mfdteacher said:

Indeed, a lot of the assumptions are dated. While a student in my BSN program, we few males were never taught to cath females and were limited in every day care scenarios (beds and baths). Later in grad school trying to do research on Males in Nursing, I was heavily criticized for looking into this subject. I did find states where males were not allowed by law in labor and delivery, "the woman chooses her doctor, but not her nurse". Further on in my career, I worked with a large municipal fire department teaching paramedics and EMTs. Many of the paramedics voiced interest or actually completed a nursing program with no concern for gender issues. The one issue that seems to remain is concerns about touching patients in appropriate ways. Female nurses tend to be allowed much more freedom to use compassionate touch than males. I find this more pervasive in the "Me too" era and seemingly based on some sort of inherent distrust of males in general. Just my two cents from a retired old RN proud of his profession.

I'd love to see where you found this. As a labordude and someone whose thesis was on men in obstetrical nursing, I'm insanely curious.

mfdteacher, BSN

Specializes in ICU/ER. Has 40 years experience.

Labordude, I believe one of the states was Alabama but I was in grad school in the 80's. I couldn't cite the reference now if you paid me but I assure you it's true and I was flabbergasted to say the least. And there were a few more states. Personally, I always hated floating to any other unit but my own but even if it was "my turn" I was NEVER floated to OB.

In regards to the preamble added to the article, I too was frequently mistaken for the doctor and questioned as to why I would be "only" a nurse. I agree that there is some degree of male privilege and was consequently treated better than my female colleagues except in my academic programs. There was always a hint of "you don't belong here", sometimes subtle and sometimes quite overt.

as a male nursing is the last role id be interested in...i dont want to deal with female cliques ever besides i view it as a feminine.role too