Why do we need more men in nursing?

 Dr Heather Whitford and Dr James Taylor 27 Aug 2018

Nursing has a lot to thank Florence Nightingale for but perhaps her assertion that every woman is a nurse and that this comes naturally to them (Nightingale, 1860) has had a long-term unintended consequence.

Currently, less than 10% of nurses are men. This wasn’t always so; a millennia ago it was the norm for men, albeit under monastic orders, or in a military context, to provide care for the poor, sick or the injured. The role of men providing such care continued for the next six or seven centuries. Yet in present day, when gender balance is widely embraced in many professions and receives regular positive publicity in the media, the number of men who enter the nursing profession appears to have changed little since the beginning of the noughties.   

The under-representation of men on pre-registration programmes of nursing education in Scotland is the subject of a recently published study we carried out for NES (Whitford et al., 2018). We found that although nursing is viewed as a worthwhile career for men, with financial security (although low earning potential compared to other professions) and opportunities for travel and career development, the inherent view of society that nursing is a female profession was a powerful deterrent. We can work with schools to challenge children and young peoples’ gender stereotyping of the nursing role, ensure gender-balance in nursing publicity, and prompt examples of male role models in nursing.  These actions may go some way towards changing perceptions of nursing and encourage more males to consider nursing as a career.  However a huge societal and cultural shift in gender perceptions is needed if inroads are to be made to change the current gender balance of the nursing workforce.

But why do we need more men in nursing; and would more nurses who are men be a good thing and what would be the benefits?  For starters, half the population is male.  Is it enough, though, to argue that in a modern society a profession should reflect more closely the gender balance of that society.  Public services that have improved their gender balance, such as the police and fire service, find that a blend of genders has advantages: it gives a range of options in terms of dealing with situations, increases the range of communication skills, and changes leadership styles and dynamics in the workforce. 

What about the challenges of men providing intimate care to patients who are women?  Such challenges can usually be reduced through the availability of choice. Female patients can usually be given a choice; there are nearly always alternative carers who are female available.  However there are many clinical settings where the lack of male nurses means that male patients have little choice and no alternative other than being cared for by a woman.  Of course it could be argued that when providing professional nursing or midwifery care that gender should not matter, but clearly there are occasions when it does and feelings of both female and male patients should be respected and accommodated. 

At the end of the day, having more men in nursing is just the right thing to do. This needs a more proactive approach to raise the issue more widely and challenge public thinking. The invisibility of men in nursing perpetuates the stereotypes and makes it even harder to challenge the status quo.  We need gender blindness about service provision in all our public services.  There is a huge pool of talent which is not being tapped into because of gender stereotypes.  And with the forecast shortage of nurses in the future, we need to ensure that our recruitment opportunities are not been hindered because of this.

Join RCN Scotland on 28 August for our Nursing, a career for men: myths, challenges and solutions event at Glasgow Caledonian University. More information here

Dr Heather Whitford & Dr James Taylor

Dr Heather Whitford and Dr James Taylor

Dr Heather Whitford, University of Dundee

Dr James Taylor, University of the West of Scotland

Page last updated - 05/09/2018