Throughout history and even now, nursing has been viewed as a female profession. With roots anchored deep in the Catholic Church, history shows it was nuns from religious nursing orders who rushed to care for injured soldiers during the Civil War.
Today, in a post-pandemic COVID-19 society, many gender roles have been tossed up and thrown out. Once-steady paychecks have vanished as people scramble to stay afloat. Men are no longer necessarily seen as the “breadwinners” of the home, just as women are no longer seen as the sole “caretakers” of the family.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of male RNs has increased to 12%, up slightly from an average of 11% from 2011 to 2015. As national health pandemics continue to create a dire need for nurses around the globe, perhaps this demand will eventually outweigh the bias against male nurses. Here we explore why it is crucial to actively bring more men into the profession of nursing and how we, as a society, can get there.
Changing the Perception of Nursing
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when people started to abandon their public office spaces, isolate in their homes, and not leave the home except for an emergency, nurses remained on the front lines each day. The physical and emotional suffering of caring for dying patients coupled with an expectation to leave it all behind once the shift is over means the toll can be excruciating for the profession.
Everyday stress that nurses encounter can cause three major psychological episodes: burnout, depression, and lateral violence. One study on Canadian nurses found one out of every 10 have displayed depressive symptoms. This is startling in comparison to just 5.1% of their non-healthcare-employed counterparts — or one out of 20.
We need to do a better job promoting the amazing skills needed for nursing from both men and women. For example, grit and resiliency are prerequisites for becoming a nurse—but the job is also about compassion and care. Having a strong bedside manner, a good work ethic, and the ability to push through every situation are the characteristics of any successful nurse, regardless of gender.
Barriers Facing Male Nurses
We need to demonstrate that nursing is a good job for a man. When we’re little, often around the fifth grade, we start to think about what we would like to be when we grow up. We know working roles are often pigeonholed by gender. At this age, publicly declaring nursing as your aspiration could be seen as weak and lead to ridicule. A 2017 study found TV often presents negative stereotypes about the profession, portraying male nurses as effeminate or comical, leaving male children without a career role model, fictional or not.
This position may also have to do with nursing often being downplayed as less important when compared to becoming a doctor, an often male-dominated field. Men are seen as the primary professional caretakers of the sick, while their female counterparts are often viewed as being their aides. For gender-dominated roles like these, it can be hard for someone of the opposite sex to find the support to begin.
Another problem is simply the title of “nurse.” One male nurse shared the thoughts of many who find the term “nurse” brings images of women nursing children or female nurses working in the hospital, rarely does someone picture a male when picturing a nurse. But he says there are strong reasons for men joining the nursing profession: high demand, great pay, meaningful work, the ability to specialize, and the opportunity to be a great example to young boys in their communities.
The Future of Men in the Nursing Workforce
One model to consider for challenging stereotypes in nursing can be found in the military. Nurses working in military operations embody as much as 35% of a branch’s workforce. This fact crushes the earlier media-centric idea that nursing isn’t “manly” — with quick thinking, physical strength, and stamina needed in real-world, life-or-death situations.
This example also shows men are more apt to trust other men to help care for them, understanding their needs in a way that only someone of the same gender can. Patients are also seeing better outcomes when receiving care from someone from the same demographic. Nurses are needed from all backgrounds.
Maybe it’s about semantics — young men may be willing to become a medic even though they may think they don’t want to grow up to be a nurse, and even though the clinical activities may be very similar. This is also an opportune time for men to become nurses because more women are leaving the profession. By choosing to pursue nursing as a career, males can begin to break through some of these outdated ideas.
When we do more to highlight these male nurses, civilian or military, we can do our part to shatter these stereotypes. We can encourage young boys to look at wanting to become a nurse or medic. We can present a more welcoming environment for existing nurses so they know they’re supported and they can grow in this career. Each and every nurse makes an impact on the world, male or female, and each of them deserves to be valued.