Gender Equality Issues in Nursing Careers

Men account for only 5.8 percent of all licensed registered nurses in the United States.
Men account for only 5.8 percent of all licensed registered nurses in the United States. (Image: Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are nearly 3 million licensed registered nurses in the United States, but only 5.8 percent of them are men. Why are there so few men in nursing? Is it the pay; the stereotyping of nurses as females; or are there other factors that impact men in nursing? With a growing nursing shortage expected to reach 1 million nurses by 2020, the health-care industry is investigating the role of men in nursing and developing strategies to recruit and retain more men to the profession.


Men have a long history as nurses. At a health-care facility established in 250 B.C. in India, men provided 24-hour nursing care. Religious orders, such as those founded by St. Benedict and St. Camillus, included male nursing services. Military and lay orders of men provided nursing services throughout the Middle Ages. Men also served as nurses during the Civil War, including the poet Walt Whitman; men-only nursing schools were common in the United States until 1900.

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale came to fame in the mid-1850s for her nursing activities in the Crimean War. She saw nursing as an ideal occupation for single “gentle-women” and was opposed to men as nurses because their “horney hands” hindered patient care. Using her public profile, she successfully aligned nursing with female qualities of mothering and caring. Over time, men were forced out of nursing.


The Nightingale effect is still in force today. In nursing, women are referred to as “nurses,” while men are referred to as “male nurses.” Nursing-school textbooks use feminine pronouns when referring to nurses, and men are only mentioned as patients. Men in nursing are often perceived as homosexual or unmotivated under-achievers who serve as “available muscle” for female nurses to help with heavy lifting, transporting patients or dealing with violent patients. Men are frequently prohibited from working in certain specialty areas, such as labor and delivery. Even male gynecologists do not want male nurses to care for their patients. Male nurses report being passed over for promotions and there are few men in nursing management or nursing education.


Fixing the gender-equality problem in nursing begins with addressing the stereotypes within the profession. Nursing school faculty, textbook writers and nurse managers need reduce their use of feminine pronouns and be more aware of their perceptions of men in nursing. Men become nurses for the same reasons that women do. They care about helping others. But their ways of caring are different and those differences must be openly discussed. For example, a female nurse may pat a patient on the shoulder as a form of comfort, but if a male nurse does this, it may be seen as inappropriate touching. Men in nursing talk about being able to “connect” with their patients without touching and this form of caring needs to be as valued as the gentle touch. In addition, advertising campaigns, such as “Are You Man Enough to Be a Nurse” -- launched in Oregon in 2006 and in other states, and designed to change the public perception of men in nursing -- need to be expanded to educate the public about men in nursing.

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