January 9, 2018

How being a male nurse became so stigmatized—and what's being done about it

Daily Briefing

    Men account for only 13% of nurses nationwide, according to a working paper from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth (WCEG)—but despite a lingering stigma, male representation in the field has grown steadily amid a shifting economy and expanding gender roles.

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    Why being a male nurse became so stigmatized

    According to Patricia D'Antonio, a nursing historian at the University of Pennsylvania, nursing has traditionally been considered a women's field because women were perceived as natural caregivers. But in fact, up until the later-half of the 19th century, men were given nursing jobs that relied on physical strength and bravery, such as caring for patients in the midst of an epidemic.

    The field started to change in 1854, D'Antonio said, when Florence Nightingale and her team of female nurses provided care during the Crimean War. At one point, according to D'Antonio, nursing was so gendered a profession that men were not allowed to serve in the Army Nurse Corps in either of the world wars.

    Gender shift, inequalities in nursing

    It wasn't until the 1960s, when just 2% of nurses were men, that the field began trying to recruit workers who reflected patients in gender and race, D'Antonio said. Since then, men have increasingly pursued nursing as a career: Men now comprise 13% of the nursing workforce in the United States, according to the WCEG working paper, which examined census data on U.S. men who turned 18 between 1973 and 2013. Abigail Wozniak, an economist at the University of Notre Dame, said, "It's not a flood, but it's a change."

    That said, "nursing is no paragon of gender equality," the New York Times' "The Upshot," reports: Male nurses tend to get paid more than female nurses, and they tend to have served as EMTs, military nurses, and lab technicians, and focus on acute-care hospitals rather than primary care facilities. And on the flip side, male nurses encounter a lingering stigma—particularly among older patients and areas of the country that espouse more traditional gender roles—because the nature of a caregiving role is still perceived as feminine. 

    Why do men become nurses?

    According to the General Social Survey, progressive attitudes towards gender roles has contributed to more men entering the nursing field. Adam White, a student nurse at a Veterans Affairs hospital, said the people who think men should not be nurses miss the point of the work. "This narrative that men can't provide care in the way that women can is part of that broad cultural narrative that misunderstands what nursing's about," he said. "We need to talk with young people about caring as a gender-neutral idea, but also as something that's rooted in skills, in expertise."

    In addition, for many men, the attraction of good pay and a stable profession is difficult to ignore, "The Upshot" reports. According to a the WCEG working paper, a decline in jobs due to automation, trade, and the housing crisis has led to a growth in the nursing field. David Baca, an ED nurse in Oregon, said, "A lot of those manufacturing jobs and things of that nature just aren't there anymore. We get paid a really livable wage, and I think that is now starting to attract more male nurses." He added, "It's a good profession because it'll always be there. They'll always need nurses. It can't be outsourced, it can't be automated."

    Some male nurses also cited the variety of their work, as they can be administrators, bedside caregivers, educators, surgery assistants, or technicians. Others said it is the sense of purpose that comes with the job. For instance, Justin Kuunifaa, a family practice nurse, said "You're a caregiver, providing quality, dignified care. It's not you doing it as a male or a female, but just generally as a caregiver."

    And that focus on patient care may encourage men to consider the field more so than a focus on destigmatizing the gender aspect of the role, "The Upshot" reports. "I don't think we're doing any favors to society by conveying this message that nursing is this super masculine thing," Jake Creviston, an NP and health nursing professor in Oregon, said, "If your motive is to bring the right men into the field, show how rewarding it is to hold the hand of a dying person" (Gooch, Becker's Hospital Review, 1/4; Miller/Fremson, "The Upshot," New York Times, 1/4).

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