As the numbers grow, will stereotypes diminish?

By Don Sadler

Despite all the societal advances that have been made with regard to gender equality, most people today still think of nursing as a female profession.

The statistics clearly explain why. While the percentage of male nurses in the workforce has risen slightly in recent years, only one out of every 10 nurses is a male. According to the National Nursing Sample Survey, male RNs made up 6.2 percent of employed RNs who were licensed before 2000 and 9.6 percent of those licensed in 2000 or later.

“These numbers are growing, but the increases are remarkably small,” notes William T. Lecher, RN, MS, MBA, NE-BC, Senior Clinical Director, Specialty Resource Unit at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the president of the American Assembly for Men in Nursing (AAMN.org). AAMN is the only professional nursing organization that exists exclusively for the recruitment and retention of men in nursing. “The good news is that the number of men considering nursing as a career choice is increasing.”

Lecher notes that more men are expected to enter nursing in the future based on recent increases in nursing school enrollment. According to data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the percentage of men in baccalaureate and masters nursing programs are 11.4 percent and 9.5 percent, respectively. In doctoral programs, meanwhile, 7.5 percent of students in research-focused programs and 9 percent of students in practice-focused programs are men.

Evolving from a Male- to a Female-Dominated Field

What’s really interesting is that nursing was originally a male-dominated field up until around the turn of the 20th century (see sidebar for a brief history of men in nursing). “Men have been in nursing for centuries, but as nursing education was formalized, schools began omitting men from attending,” says Lecher.

Jerry Lucas, RN, who publishes Male Nurse Magazine (www.malenursemagazine.com), notes that many male nurses entered the field after serving as military medics, like he did. “What is starting to change is the number of young men who are choosing nursing but aren’t coming out of the military. That’s a good sign—that the industry is doing a better job of recruiting young non-military men by getting the word out that nursing is not just a women’s field.”

Both Lecher and Lucas believe that the distinction between male and female nurses is wholly unnecessary. “Nobody calls our counterparts ‘female nurses,’ so there’s really no reason to call us ‘male nurses,’” says Lecher. “While some of the stereotypes with regard to men in nursing still persist—things like questioning our masculinity or whether or not we were able to become doctors—they are diminishing.”

Jody Still, RN, SIS System Admin with Clark Memorial Hospital-Surgical Services in Jeffersonville, Ind., says that he has worked in the nursing field for 14 years and “always been the minority in my workplace. I believe that today’s society is more open and understanding to men in the nursing field, but we are still a vast minority in the profession.”

“Unfortunately, one of the biggest detriments to men entering nursing is TV shows and movies like Meet the Parents,” adds Lucas, referring to the popular movie in which a male character is ridiculed for being a nurse. “How often do you see male nurses on TV medical dramas? But there are plenty of female doctors on TV.”

In a recent blog post, Sean Dent, CCRN, who has worked in cardiac, surgical and trauma intensive care nursing, lamented: “Here I am, revisiting yet another stereotype: the opinion that men in nursing are less ‘manly’ than other men. For some strange reason, some people feel that because I work in a predominantly female field, my ‘man card’ was revoked. Seriously?”

In the blog, Dent refers to a recent study in which subjects rated male nursing students as displaying more “manly” characteristics than male college students in other majors. The average masculinity score for male nursing students was 5.3 (out of 7), compared to 4.9 for male students studying other subjects.

A belief that male nurses are less masculine has existed for generations and is reinforced by popular culture, the researchers noted, warning that this stereotype could discourage men from entering the profession. “This is unfortunate, since evidence suggests that the optimal effectiveness of health care requires both genders in equal numbers,” the researchers wrote.

“In my experience as a nurse, I honestly can’t say that my masculinity has ever been questioned,” said Dent. “And no, after I passed my boards, the masculinity police did not confiscate my ‘man card.’ I didn’t become a nurse because I thought it was more or less manly than other professions. I made a conscious decision to impact lives. This urban legend about the masculinity of male nurses is just a conversation piece.”

Male Perioperative Nurses

According to David A. Wyatt, BSN, MA, MPH, RN, CNOR, the Administrative Director of Operative Services at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and a board member for the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN), about 8 percent of AORN’s membership is currently male.

“The settings where I have practiced medicine have been very gender-neutral, with the primary focus on ensuring positive patient outcomes,” says Wyatt. “Paying attention to anything other than this is just a distraction from what we need to be concentrating on in the OR.”

R. Peter Rossi, RN BS, Nurse Manager Surgical Operations with Halifax Regional Medical Center in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., has spent most of his 30-plus year career in the OR. “Therefore, my contact with the public regarding my maleness has been limited. Some surgeons have made negative comments along the way, but most of their sarcastic or negative remarks fade away once they see how I perform my duties.

“In fact, I believe that part of my success is attributed to being a man, since male surgeons relate better to me,” Rossi adds. “I know it’s sexist, but sometimes you have to use what you’ve got!”

Lecher says the AAMN has begun a recruitment initiative it calls “20×20: Choose-Nursing” with the goal of boosting male nursing school enrollment nationwide to 20 percent by 2020. “We are also seeking Partners to work with us to develop the national strategy and best practices to recruit and retain more men in nursing.” These Partner colleges and schools of nursing will strive to achieve and maintain male enrollment levels of at least 30 percent and retention rates of 90 percent or higher through program completion.

“If I could say one thing to young men who are considering a career in nursing, it would be, ‘Guys, come and join us. Become a nurse. We’ve been expecting you, and you won’t regret it,” says Lecher.

“Nursing is a fantastic career, regardless of your background or gender,” adds Wyatt. “Few careers provide this kind of opportunity to have such a big impact on peoples’ lives on a daily basis. It has been incredibly satisfying for me professionally, and I would highly encourage anyone who is considering a career in nursing, whether they’re male or female.”

The History of Men in Nursing

According to Jerry Lucas, RN, the publisher of Male Nurse Magazine (www.malenursemagazine.com), the history of men in nursing goes back to third-century Rome, where an organization of men called the Parabolani brotherhood provided care to the sick and dying during the great plague in Alexandria.

Fast-forward to the Crusades, where Lucas says groups of men known as Knighthood orders provided nursing care to their sick and injured comrades. “One of these Knighthood orders was called the Knights Hospitalers, which is where we get the word ‘hospital’ from,” says Lucas. “These orders were responsible for building, organizing and managing great hospitals and setting a standard for the administration of hospitals, which were predominantly located in the battlefield, in Europe at the time.”

During the Civil War in the U.S., men served as battlefield nurses in both the Union and Confederate armies, “although we only hear about the predominantly female Union volunteer nurses,” says Lucas. “The Confederate Army assigned 30 men in each regiment to care for the wounded. This could have been the start to the modern Combat Medic of today.”

Lucas explains that the shift in nursing to predominantly females started around the turn of the century, “when female nurses started to organize.” In 1894, the superintendents of Female Nursing Schools (who were all female) gathered in New York for their first annual meeting. The female nursing organizations were able to exclude men from nursing in the military, and when the U.S. Army Nurse Corp was formed in 1901, only women could serve as nurses.

At this point in history, military nursing, which had been mostly male, became exclusively female, says Lucas. “It was not till after the Korean War that men were permitted back into military nursing.”