In the United Kingdom more nurses are leaving the national register than joining it. The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) reported in July that an overall reduction in the numbers of nurses and midwives.
England has scrapped the bursary for nursing students and paid the price in the form of a 23% drop in applicants at a time when more than ever are needed. Scotland and Wales retain the bursary but still face significant recruitment problems. In Scotland alone, the NHS was reportedly spending £64,000 a day on agency nurses in 2016, with only one third of NHS staff feeling staffing levels were sufficient for them to do their job properly.
We need to widen the talent pool if we are to staff the NHS with high-quality graduate nurses. A traditionally female-dominated profession, male representation at nursing student level is woeful. Nationally the gender split is about 90% female, 10% male applicants to nursing degree courses, with many universities reporting figures which are less favourable still.
Men could be the virtually untapped resource nursing needs. Studies show that patients see little difference between the care provided by male nurses and that provided by their female counterparts. Sometimes they feel that male nurses are gentler and more attentive, in particular when providing personal care.
With current numbers, there are always going to be men cared for by female nurses, not because they wish to be but because there is no alternative. Bringing gender balance to a ward may also go some way to challenging the view of a nurse as a doctor’s handmaiden.
Shifting from male-dominated roles
The nature of modern work is changing. We know that when men do choose nursing, they tend to do so having already had one career path. With Artificial Intelligence sweeping away many male-dominated jobs, large numbers of men would benefit from retraining in a rewarding, secure profession.
Despite this, the perception that nursing is not for men persists and the experiences of men in nursing demonstrate how pervasive negative stereotypes remain. One study reported that male nursing students felt significantly more visible on the wards than their female counterparts. These men felt an increase in male nurses and nursing students would help them feel less conspicuous.
It was also reported that male nurses encountered the prejudicial (and incorrect) view that they were either gay or sexual predators. The sexuality of females in male-dominated professions is rarely questioned but this appears to be a problem that persists for men in traditionally female-dominated roles.
Men in nursing also reported that when being asked why they did not go to medical school, they underlined the societal attribution of the female gender to nursing as being an issue.
Stereotypical representations of nurses in popular culture, from television shows to fancy dress outfits, help no one. Media representation has long been criticised by the nursing profession. Nurses are traditionally cast as the “helpers” with male doctors swooping down to save the day. Doctors are also portrayed doing jobs usually performed by nurses, such as being the first responders to the deteriorating patient and administering medication.
Changing an entrenched image
So how do we go about changing the image of nursing so that it defies the associated stereotyping, and attracts more men to this profession with prospects? That’s a challenge we have taken on with our #MenDoCare campaign that aims to develop innovative ways of promoting nursing to male applicants.
We are investigating why more men don’t apply for nursing and the barriers – real or perceived – that stand in their way. Provisional results from our focus groups indicate that male nursing students have all had male nurses in their family or social circles, suggesting that breaking down barriers with individuals creates a virtuous circle.
There is a more important issue to address however – how did this situation come about in the first place? There is much evidence that gender stereotypes are formed at a very young age. Research has also shown that children’s gender role stereotypes are much more fixed when applied to men – they will more readily see females break out of the stereotype than males.
So much so, in one study when asked to make a sentence out of the name “Henry” and occupation “nurse”, one fourth year primary school student offered: “Henry the nurse is a doctor too.” If we are to change the way that children view nurses and other gender-stereotyped professions, we need to start early.
One of the things we have learned is that men tend to dislike the gendered term “male nurse” and research also suggests caring is reframed as a universal attribute (being a “decent human being” rather than a caring man or woman). This may also help attract transgender applicants. To address inequality in the nursing profession, the approach must be fully inclusive.
In the past, nursing was an apprenticeship profession. Now it is an academic discipline, with graduate registrants contributing to greater patient survival rates. Many of these graduates choose to go on to further their education via master’s degrees, PhDs and research posts.
Nursing is a good choice for men – once they enter the profession they are likely to be promoted faster than their female peers and earn higher salaries – benefiting from what Forbes magazine calls the “glass escalator”.
Yes, it’s ironic that one of the selling points of nursing for males considering entering the profession is yet another example of gender inequality in favour of men, but that is an argument for another day. In the meantime, to sufficiently staff hospitals with high-calibre nurses, we need more men stepping up.