As a key component of one of the fastest-growing segments of the US economy, it’s no wonder that nurses enjoy higher levels of employment compared with the job market as a whole. These strong prospects for opportunity and job security have made nursing a popular career choice for professionals of all backgrounds, both male and female. This is a recent change in an occupation that has been traditionally dominated by women. Evidence shows that the discrimination that has historically kept men from entering nursing is beginning to slowly fade away, and the next time you find yourself in need of medical care, you may encounter a male nurse.
Overview of Growth
In 2011, there were 3.5 million nurses employed in the US. 3.2 million of these healthcare professionals were women and approximately 330,000 were men, which translates to a 91%-9% split. This may seem like a continuation of nursing as a wholly female occupation, but in reality the amount of male nurses has tripled over the past 40 years. In 1970, only 2.7% of RNs were men. Now that number is 9.6%.
Similarly, the amount of males in the LPN and LVN ranks has grown from 3.9% in 1970 to 8.1% in 2011. A relaxation of attitudes toward men in nursing can explain a portion of this growth over the past four decades, and much of it can also be attributed to fears of a nursing shortage – which has led to increased recruiting activities – but to fully explain the rise of male nurses, the history of discrimination against men in the nursing field must be examined.
The History of Men in Nursing
Since Florence Nightingale began opening professional nursing schools in the early 1900s, nursing has been viewed as an exclusively feminine pursuit. In fact, until the 1960s the US Army and the Canadian Forces did not accept men in nursing and individuals interested in joining the profession were barred from most areas of nursing except for a very few settings. Furthermore, nursing registries segregated men and women and often pushed male nurses toward specialties that were considered more suitable for men such as mental health.
Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, these restrictions placed upon men interested in the nursing profession began to fall away in much the same way that impediments keeping women from joining the workforce as a whole were starting to disappear. Although substantial progress has been made over the past four decades, gender bias, stereotyping, and other overt and covert discrimination against male nurses continues.
Continued Discrimination & Inequality
Although historical evidence shows that men have performed duties similar to nurses for as long as medical care has been practiced, popular culture has always shown nursing as a female occupation. In fact, male nurses are often stereotyped and viewed as unambitious by peers and supervisors – the assumption being that the only men who would choose to enter nursing are medical school dropouts.
Men in the nursing field are also routinely the victims of homophobia by both patients and coworkers, a factor that can stigmatize male nurses based on the perception that nursing is inherently effeminate. However, it’s important to note that the same deep-seated prejudices and preconceived notions that have historically kept men out of nursing are now making it easier for them to advance in their careers.
Studies suggest that patriarchal tendencies that place increased value on masculinity play a role in placing male nurses in administrative and selective positions. While this may be debated or explained away as an attempt to expand the number of male leaders in nursing to provide more role models for other men interested in joining the profession, one thing is certain: even in an occupation dominated by women such as nursing, men are better compensated than women. The US Census Bureau’s 2011 one-year American Community Survey showed that female nurses made 87.4% to 92.7% of their male counterparts (while disturbing, this is actually better than the average across all occupations, which is 77 cents to the dollar).
What the Future Holds
Some would argue that the fact the proportion of men in nursing has risen to almost 10% signifies major progress. While this is true to a certain extent, there is still a ways to go before male nurses are commonplace. For example, the National League for Nursing reported in 2011 that men made up 15% of enrollments in nursing programs, yet they haven’t even reached 10% of the workforce. This points to a significant attrition rate that must be reduced for the number of male nurses to increase significantly.
In addition, the number of men leaving nursing due to dissatisfaction with the profession is on the rise – from 2% in 1992 to 7% as of 2003. Finally, over the same time period that male nurses increased from less than 2% to almost 10%, the number of female applicants to medical school grew from 17% to 50%.
Although the existence of male nurses is no longer a novelty and is becoming more ordinary every day, there is still room for growth. The attitude of Robert De Niro’s character toward his daughter’s male nurse fiancé in the movie Meet the Parents seems quaint and almost antiquated now. Yet men who study nursing report that female pronouns are still used exclusively in text books and other materials, and these same male nurses continue to feel the need to label themselves with the term “murse.” Overall, the number of men who choose nursing as their occupation will undoubtedly continue to expand based on the opportunities provided by working in the healthcare sector, but more than likely nursing in general will continue to be dominated by women for some time to come.
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