Gender Issues in Nursing

One of the most important things to remember about nursing is that it is a profession; it is not a gender. Stereotypically, however, nurses are most often portrayed as females. As efforts succeed to break down this gender barrier, more men are becoming nurses. The opportunities for men are as widespread as they are for women, but the battle continues to eliminate the feminine image.

Men represent about 6 percent of the total work force of nurses in the United States today. In the military, however, over 30 percent of the nurses in three branches (army, navy, and air force) of the armed services are men.

Men were excluded from nursing in the military from 1901 when the U.S. Army Nurse Corps was formed and only women could be nurses. This rule remained in effect until after the Korean War in the early 1950s. During this time, men who were R.N.s could join the armed forces and many were drafted, but they did not serve as nurses in the military. Men were also excluded from the American Nurses Association (ANA) from its beginning in 1917 until 1930.

Ironically, in other countries throughout the world, men have been nurses for centuries. The first male nurses were in Rome in the third century as members of the Parabolani brotherhood who cared for the sick and dying in Alexandria during the plague. During the Crusades, there were several groups of knights who cared for the sick and their injured comrades and were involved in building and managing hospitals in these times.

During the Civil War, both the Union and Confederate armies had men serving as nurses and medics. Historically, however, the nurses we hear about from this time were the women volunteers who helped care for wounded soldiers on the battlefields and in the hospitals.

Men are drawn to nursing for the same reasons women are. The only significant difference is that men can be physically stronger than women and as such, are called upon more often to help lift and turn patients. This task can interfere with completing their assignments and it requires a strong sense of teamwork to keep this from becoming a problem.

Hospitals have historically prevented men from working in OB/GYN and women's health departments, but even that is changing rapidly. There remains an attitude that patients have to be forewarned and given a choice whether to accept a male nurse. As health care workers help to educate the public that there is no difference, a nurse is a nurse, even these subtle biases will be a thing of the past.

Men are often asked the question of why they did not become a doctor instead. Again, nursing is a different profession from medicine. The implication that somehow medicine is nobler or that nursing is a waste of your talents and intelligence is a huge issue for all nurses.

Sexual orientation implications have also been a factor in keeping many men away from nursing. There has long been a misconception that male nurses are predominantly homosexual. In reality, most male nurses are heterosexual and regardless of sexual orientation, men go into nursing today for the same reason many women do: because of the flexibility it offers for spending time with family. Other professions often demand a nine-to-five schedule that prevents parents' participation in school events and youth sports.

Just as nursing is not gender-specific, it also does not indicate a person's sexual orientation. Instead, nursing is a profession in which both men and women excel equally.

The nursing shortage has helped to ease many of these gender biases, as well as helped increase salaries that will attract both men and women. Statistically, men seem to be drawn to the technical specialties in nursing such as anesthesia and intensive care and to the autonomy of the nurse practitioner role. As more young people learn about the growing career opportunities the nursing field has to offer, we will see many more males entering the field.

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