Facing Gender Bias in Nursing

Often when discussing gender bias, it is women who are the victims; however, in the nursing field the roles are reversed. Many men are discouraged from going into nursing because it is thought to be a woman’s job and that, as a career, it won’t be able to provide for a family, so men are more often pushed into the roles of doctors or physician’s assistants. Even when men didn’t listen to those doubts and pursued nursing, they went into classes mostly taught by women, and most of their cohorts had only six other men. This may seem crazy, but this is the case for many men going into nursing today, and it hurts them as well as the nursing field itself.

Nursing has been dominated by women since the time of Florence Nightingale, the mother of modern nursing, because women were thought to have natural caregiving abilities, which nurses need in abundance. Throughout history, men were either banned from going into nursing because of their “lack” of instincts, or were widely scrutinized and ridiculed by patients, families, and even other nurses when they did make it into the field. Because being a male nurse in those times was discouraged, it set up a culture of gender bias that is still seen in many programs and throughout hospitals today.

Over the summer I had the opportunity to be a team advisor for a student nursing conference at Yale University, and I was able to teach groups of high school students about nursing and how to become a nurse. Throughout the three sessions, out of a total of 70 students, our nursing program only had seven boys. That is a pretty accurate depiction of the actual ratio in the working field, as men make up about 10% of nurses. I also saw people interact with the boys a little differently than the girls. Professors would say something about male nurses and then directly point at the boys in the audience, singling them out. Though done in an encouraging way, this still showed them that they weren’t normal in the situation. As we practiced assessments, many of the boys were afraid to touch me, even just to take my pulse, because they were worried it would be deemed inappropriate even though it was purely clinical.

The one thing that I thought was interesting about the groups of boys throughout the summer was that they always stuck together and had a serious passion about nursing. This is common in all the male nursing students or nurses I meet. Though everyone I meet has some of this passion, it seems as if men who choose nursing have to go through some challenges to prove they truly want to pursue nursing, or that it is a viable career, so they have this extra passion and love for the field. The boys also always had each other’s backs. It seemed as if they all knew they were in the same boat, so immediately they formed a bond and knew they would protect each other, even if it was from an awkward encounter at nursing school.

Many men also face scrutiny from their personal families when they say that they have chosen nursing instead of being a doctor or something else that seems more masculine. I've had many different experience with men who have gone into nursing and many of them faced scrutiny from their families. Whether it was deliberately said or not, many felt they had to go into a more masculine specialty within the nursing field. One person I knew throughout my time in school was dating someone who was going to med school and his family often compared him to her stating he should be going into this "more powerful" profession. Many men feel this and it doesn't seem valid to want to heal people closely instead of trying to heal the disease.

To address this gender bias in nursing, there are many problems that need to be fixed. One is that a man must be less scrutinized while working, or even while still in school. Many male nurses have reported that they feel they must be careful how and where they touch patients, because they believe that some patients perceive this as a sexual thing while it is purely clinical. They also feel a pressure to volunteer to do the “manly” jobs, like help lifting patients, even if they have their own tasks that need to be attended to. Others comment that while presenting skills or working in clinicals, they feel as if they are being looked at under a microscope, with someone just waiting for them to mess up. This can be exhausting and really hinder a man’s experience in the field they have a passion for, and they can’t do much to change it. As nursing programs go on, others in the cohort must make a conscious effort to not look at the gender of the nurse, but rather the clinical skill they have. This is exactly how we would expect one to treat a woman in cases where the roles are reversed, as they often are, so why is it so hard for a woman to make the same accommodations?

Another problem is believing that nursing is an emasculating career, and sadly this problem is a lot harder to solve. Because a lot of this bias comes from one’s own home where masculinity is often the culture, the nurse's family must make the change to not look at what type of career their son is going into, but rather see that they are happy and doing what they love. Again, this is a lot easier said than done and in some cases it doesn’t happen, but if cohorts can provide a place of welcoming and support, it might be easier to face family and cultures at home.

Gender bias is an interesting topic and is often talked about in today’s world, but few people see the role reversal in some careers like nursing, and it is greatly hurting the men involved. We fight so hard for gender equality for women, why is it so hard to fight for men too?


Sources 1, 23