Nursing is one of the professions that are asymmetrically represented in terms of gender. This may be due to several factors including legal restrictions, exclusionary policies, social stereotypes, and self-induced restrictions. The history of nursing dates back as far as 250 BC when the first nursing school was established in India. During this time up until the 19th century, the nursing profession was predominantly for men due to the impression that men were regarded as pure enough to be nurses. The current witnessed shortage of men nurses has its roots in the civil war of the 1800s when women nurses took control of the profession and the military excluded male nurses from joining the forces. Although the profession is being stereotyped as being feminine, the current trends are changing this perception with more men training and joining the profession. Even though, society’s stereotype against male nurses has not made it easier for men to breakthrough into the profession. Indeed, the reasons behind the shortage of men nurses may be related to the reason behind the shortage of women in the military. This paper will discuss the reason why there are fewer men than women in the nursing profession.
History of Nursing
The formal nursing profession began in 250 BC when the first nursing school was established in India exclusively for men (Career Toolkit, 2009, para. 2). In the years that followed up to around the 19th century, men dominated the nursing profession. According to O’Lynn and Tranbarger (2007, p. 22), the 19th century marked the turning point for the men exclusion in nursing. The years proceeding this period had seen men nurses being preferred especially in monasteries and convents, but the emergence of the protestant reformation (which led to the closure of many convents) and the accelerated entry of women into the convents sounded the death bell to the men nurses as women took control. Even then, men’s services in nursing were still sparingly needed especially where physical strength (e.g. to subdue mentally ill patients) was needed and in areas where female nurses were nonexistent.
The industrial revolution provided a new dimension to the nursing profession. Men left the nursing profession in droves to take up positions in the emerging industries which they preferred because they did not require formal education and had better compensation. In addition, the jobs were physical and always involved spending more time away from home thus favoring men over women. The result was that women moved in to take up positions left by men in nursing. During this time in Europe, the nursing profession was tainted by the tendency to hire social misfits, alcoholics, prisoners, and prostitutes, leading to a massive walkout by men who saw it as a low-status profession (O’Lynn and Tranbarger, 2007, p. 24).
The turn of the 20th century saw the discrimination of the highest order in nursing. The introduction of registration of trained nurses was predominantly preserved for women’s full membership; and as if that was not enough, men always faced negative hostility from women, marking the beginning of the stereotype era in the profession.
In the US, the early 20th century saw the exclusion of men nurses from joining the military. Moreover, just as it was in Europe, schools stopped admitting men in nursing (Williams, 1991, p. 91). However, it was not until the end of World War II when a severe shortage of nurses was felt that regulations were slightly loosed, although the military in the US never recognized the need for male nurses until 1955. However, the stereotype of men nurses never died as the perception that men were not naturally capable to perform nursing roles and that their inclusion in the profession was a violation of respect to the occupation was being witnessed (O’Lynn and Tranbarger, 2007, p. 26). This stereotype is still haunting the profession to date.
Factors Influencing Availability of Few Men in Nursing
Legal restrictions and exclusive policies
The early years of the twentieth century marked the years of discrimination against men nurses especially in registration, school and hospital admission, and military admission. As a continuation of the 19th century years that saw the decline in men nurses especially influenced by catholic monasteries limitations and the civil war, the 1919 Nurses Registration Act in Britain only recognized women as the bonafide members of the nursing profession, and so did the American Nurses Association. In addition, most schools banned the admission of men to train as nurses and when they did so, men were only trained in the fields of psychiatry and pharmacy and not in the general nursing profession. This discrimination extended further to the hospitals where men were only called in to perform the duties that required physical ability.
The US military also had banned the admission of men nurses during the early years of the 20th century. It was only after an intensive campaign that legislation permitting the inclusion of men nurses in the forces in 1955 was passed. The factors that were put forward included: men were better suited to conduct psychiatric functions; men had the strength to carry out more tasks simultaneously than women, and men could double up as combatants when the need arises (Williams, 1991, 93). However, the training of men in psychiatric promised better wages than the general nursing profession which made men perceive nursing as a low profile profession thus opting to stay away from it.
The men nurses have encountered various stereotypes from within and outside the profession. Some of the stereotypes come from the men themselves who view the profession as being feminine, with few opportunities for growth, low profile, and offering low wages. Indeed, Williams (1991, p. 90) claims that men are few in the nursing profession not due to “legal restrictions, but because they do not want to be nurses” and that they hold the profession with low regard. However, the current trend in men joining the profession has shown that men are advancing their nursing skills more than women, and more often than not, they prefer the administration side of nursing.
Society is still stereotyped about men in nursing. Both the society and the patients view men nurses as less capable to conduct nursing duties and therefore they would prefer females attending to them. In most cases, society has never understood the true meaning of the nursing profession and always takes it as a low profile job that does not fit to be done by a man. Their perception is that a man working in the nursing profession must be out of his mind.
Men’s entry into the profession is hindered by the perception of the female patients who are always uncomfortable to be attended to by male nurses. This scenario is common in the areas of obstetric and gynecology, to an extent that some of the male nurses have sought legal action to be allowed to perform their duties effectively (Career Toolkit, 2009, para. 7). The situation is made even worse by the negative perception of other men who can’t stand to see their wives being attended to by the male nurses. This prejudice tends to make men restrain from joining the nursing profession to avoid such frustrations.
The perception of men as gay also plays a role in inhibiting male participation in the nursing profession. This stereotype not only applies in the nursing profession but also other social areas. According to Career Toolkit (2009, para. 8), the society’s perception is that “a nurse is there to be a ‘handmaiden’ to the doctor and that only a gay man would want to be a doctor’s ‘handmaiden’.” to the physician and only a gay man can accept to be in such a position. Moreover, William (1991, p. 107) views that the reason behind few men in the nursing profession is that men would desist to feminine-related jobs due to social stigma that arises including being labeled homosexual.
The nursing profession is all-inclusive just like any other profession and despite the discrimination that has been encountered in the past, the encouragement of men to join the profession is paramount. This is in the realization that the work nurses do is very vital in the health care service industry. Although the early nursing was conducted by men, the trend changed in the later years of the 19th and 20th centuries with men being completely discriminated against. The reforms after World War II were very vital as men’s inclusion and willingness to work in nursing have increased over the last few decades. Moreover, skills requirement in nursing has made men advance their nursing skills, and today, they are having an edge over their female counterparts in terms of wages although their number is still very low. To make the nursing profession more appealing, public awareness should be enhanced to change the perception of society and encourage more men to join the profession.
Career Toolkits. “Men in Nursing.” Career Toolkits. N.d. Web.
O’Lynn, Chad E. and Tranbarger, Russell E. Men in nursing: history, challenges, and opportunities. NY: Springer Publishing Company. 2007.
Williams, Christine L. Gender differences at work: women and men in nontraditional occupations. CA: University of California Press. 1991.