Why Are Male Nurses Still in Short Supply?

If you’re a movie buff, you might remember a comedy called Meet the Parents. In it, Ben Stiller played a male nurse who is all set on marrying his girlfriend. And for many nurses who watched this film, it was pretty obvious that the screenwriter chose the vocation of nurse to help define the character’s personality: a big-hearted, but not-so-macho, under-achiever. The movie bundled up a bunch of stereotypes about male nurses – and nurses in general – and played them for laughs.

In 2001, only 3.5 percent of nursing school faculty and 2.4 percent of deans were male.

Although we’re well into the 21st century, the nursing profession is still associated with “feminine” traits like softness, nurturing, and caring; and the public’s perception of a nurse continues to be a middle-aged white woman. Yet, the reality is that gender and ethnic diversity in nursing has expanded tremendously in the last 40 years.

Male nurses, by the numbers
Last year, the U.S. Census Bureau released a special report, called Men in Nursing Occupations. It states the proportion of male RNs in the workforce has more than tripled since 1970, when it was only 2.7 percent, to 7.8 percent in 2000, and 9.6 percent in 2011. This trend is positive, although we obviously have a long way to go.

In its 2010 landmark report, The Future of Nursing: Leading Health, Advancing Change, the IOM calls for the industry to step up efforts to recruit more men. It sees this as a necessary component of meeting the larger goal of a more diverse nursing workforce. The AACN, in 2001, also published a bulletin calling for more diversity in nursing. It found that men are severely under-represented in nursing education – at the time of publication, only 3.5 percent of nursing school faculty and 2.4 percent of deans were male.

Current trends
The state of our economy offers an easy explanation for the recent rise in the numbers of male nurses. During the recession, jobs dried up in certain male-dominated industries, like construction. At the same time, health care was adding jobs and continuing to offer secure employment. It’s easy to see how this would be appealing to someone who saw himself as a breadwinner for his family. It comes as no surprise, then, that men are pursuing the most highly paid nursing specialties. A 2013 article from Yahoo! Finance reports that:

Even though women constitute a disproportionately high share of all nursing occupations, men are more likely to go into the higher-paid ones, like nurse anesthetists, and less likely to become licensed practical or vocational nurses, who are lower-paid. About 41% of nurse anesthetists are men (just 9% of all nurses are men), who earn, on average, $162,900 a year, compared with $40,200 for licensed practical and vocational nurses. (Specialized graduate education is required to be a nurse anesthetist, nurse practitioner, and nurse midwife.)

So what’s holding back even more men from making a career in nursing? The main barrier seems to be gender-related stereotypes – like the notion that men are not compassionate enough to make good nurses. Yet, the top reason given by men for entering nursing is a strong desire to help people, according to a 2005 study by the American Assembly of Men in Nursing. Another stereotype is that only under-achieving men “settle” for a nursing career, after determining they couldn’t make it in medical school. 

The IOM report suggests that the best way to knock down these barriers is by transforming the education system. It urges leaders in nursing education to partner with community organizations to recruit nurses from all minority groups. Despite their current small percentage, nurses from minority groups – including male nurses – make significant contributions to the health care system and serve as role models for future generations of men and women who may decide to pursue nursing careers.

Are you interested in advancing your nursing career, perhaps by choosing a field to specialize in? American Sentinel University offers advanced degree programs, including MSN and DNP, in specialty areas like infection control, case management, executive leadership, and nursing education.

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