We need lots more male nurses, but progress can come with bumps along the way

So much for gender balance. Micholas

It’s an uncharacteristically sunny Saturday at Stark’s Park football ground in Kirkcaldy, Fife in the east of Scotland. This is the home of Raith Rovers, a big fish of the lower Scottish leagues, who are in the hunt for a place in the play-offs and a chance to clamber back into the second tier of league football.

Unlike most people coming through the gates for today’s clash with struggling Brechin City, my colleagues and I are not so much here for the football. We’re running a stand to press the case for more men in nursing, a profession where women outnumber men by a staggering nine to one – both in Scotland and around the world.

This is Scotland’s former industrial heartland, part of the constituency previously held by former UK prime minister, Gordon Brown – himself a Raith fan. Kirkcaldy was once the world’s largest linoleum manufacturing centre. We’re also a stone’s throw from one of the country’s largest coal-mining areas.

The Raith faithful. McRob, CC BY

Such male-dominated occupations have long since faded into the past, and unemployment levels here are well above the national average. The University of Dundee has a campus in Kirkcaldy where nurses study – and this ought to be a good place to persuade men that nursing could be the career pathway them. They’re certainly highly sought after as the UK faces serious nursing shortages.

While the game is underway, we move our trestle table to a more central location. We weren’t getting much traction in our previous spot, which made us think that a previously unidentified mediating factor in men’s under-representation in the nursing profession may be their unwillingness to discuss career prospects en route to the toilet or the food concession.

The youngest fans are happy to take some of our university-branded Post-Its and pens – but most people are fairly non-committal on the prospect of male nursing. Views range from: “It’s a great job, just not for me”, and: “I had a male nurse look after my ma and he was brilliant”, through: “No-one told us about it at school”, to: “I know it’s not right – and it’s definitely not my opinion – but a lot of people think male nurses must be gay”.

Raith Rovers’ other stand – for recruiting male nurses. Richard Craven

Many men are perhaps used to expressing their emotions on afternoons like these, while still seeing it as weak or “unmasculine” to do so in other areas of their lives – including in professions traditionally associated with care and empathy. One nursing student colleague who is helping on the stand, braving the chill of the concourse in his tunic uniform, tells me that though he comes from Kirkcaldy, people he knows at the match simply don’t recognise him in these clothes. It adds to my sense that as nurses, men are invisible.

Pros and cons to change

In recent years, there have been growing efforts to address the problem of men being underrepresented in nursing – a recruitment drive in England has prompted a substantial increase in male student nurses, for instance. Men who do choose to become nurses generally see it as a stable and rewarding career option. Yet there’s a very long way to go – and we know from recent research that nursing is still perceived as an essentially female job, something that is compounded by the lack of men in the profession.

The research still points to a need to change nursing recruitment to make it more gender neutral – for example, bunching together male interviewees for nursing jobs rather than common situations where one man is waiting to be interviewed along with five women. We need to see changes well beyond recruitment, however – when children are taught about health and care in primary schools and even nurseries, nursing has to be presented as more of a gender-neutral occupation.

Before we go full steam ahead, however, there are a couple of reasons for caution. According to the Nursing and Midwifery Council, men in 2017-18 made up just over 10% of the UK’s 690,000 nurses, but were the subject of nearly 5,000 cases on fitness to practice – 23% of the total. As they progressed through the hearing stages, these men were also more likely than female counterparts to be found to have a case to answer, more likely to face temporary suspension and more likely to be removed from the profession. And judging by the figures for the first part of this year, this trend is continuing.

Long push for equality. Spotmatik Ltd

Recent research from London also reports a disproportionate number of men at higher levels of the profession. The researchers suggest that where women have spent many years banging their heads against glass ceilings, in some gendered professions such as nursing, men are possibly riding a “glass escalator” to the top.

So it could be that by recruiting lots more male nurses, you end up with more disciplinary problems and fewer high-ranking female nurses. This is the time to examine these issues more closely – we need more research into why men end up in more disciplinary hearings, for example. And we need to look at whether and why there may be a glass escalator in the profession and what can be done about it.

Progress can come with bumps along the way. It’s a little like the fortunes of Raith, who ended up making this season’s play offs only to miss out on promotion in the final.