May 29, 2020

Father’s Day Thoughts on Men in Nursing

I recently commented on Mother’s Day and nursing, noting that women who have sacrificed so much for others as mothers and nurses deserve our deepest gratitude. As I said, mothers are our first and most intimate caregivers, truly tending to the whole person. But what about men? Where do we fit in nursing?

As some have concluded, Florence Nightingale may have considered women better suited than men to the work of nursing. Although this is debatable, she at least emphasized what she considered the inevitable role of women in caring for the sick. Given this emphasis, it is not surprising that the field of nursing is dominated by women. However, I believe there is more to the picture than simply Nightingale’s emphasis on women as nurses.

An internet search of the topic will easily return a large number of hits related to men in nursing, including statistics on gender disparity and reasons why men do or don’t enter the field. Overall, there is evidence that fewer than 1 in 10 nurses identifies as male. You may have heard many possible reasons for this, including the presence of gender discrimination and stereotyping, the lack of male nurse educators and mentors, and the perceived lack of career development opportunities for men, among others.

I’ve read and heard many of these search results myself. I’ve experienced situations I would classify as gender discrimination or latent sexism in nursing. I agree that there are too few men serving as nurse educators and mentors–and, by extension, as preceptors. I expressed as much to my unit manager and onboarding personnel when I first entered nursing. I’ve personally experienced the relative lack of professional development opportunities in nursing–at least of the kinds that attract me personally. Despite all of this, I believe one very important possibility is missing from the typical discussion: We may be missing the point entirely by framing these issues as we have.

Consider how we have framed the issues, time and time again. Our discussions are usually centered on the notion of men encountering a field dominated by women, seeking a foothold to establish gender diversity in a field that has long been thought of as feminine. So, we ask each other how many men there are in nursing relative to the total number of nurses in a given area. We ask men why they entered nursing, what barriers they see to entry of other men, etc. Much of this suggests that men need to or ought to justify their choice to enter the field of nursing, as if there’s something strange about males providing care to others.

In light of that, I’m inclined to ask myself a number of questions having to do with what exactly I’m engaged in during the 36-plus hours a week I spend wearing scrubs in an acute care setting. How is my choice to enter the “field formerly known as nursing” related to other endeavors I have attempted in my life? In the previous sentence, I referred to the “field formerly known as nursing,” and that may sound weird. But I used that phrase to highlight the possibility that what we commonly refer to as nursing may in fact simply bear a close resemblance to some other area of work in which I and many if not most other “men in nursing” are actually involved. Maybe “male nurses” are not really nurses after all, but something else entirely that has yet to be recognized adequately.

Personally, I’d like to ask why the field of nursing is so resistant to redefinition and renaming in light of the presence of men in health care settings. Epitomizing this, why do some joke that male nurses should be called “murses”? Why not seek a more radical approach to the nature of the work of caring–if that concept is even preserved as primary in the profession as redefined? These questions are key drivers of my own thoughts on my career.

Thank you fathers, and thank you nurse brothers, for all of the ways you also enrich our lives and help us flourish as human beings. You are all just as indispensable as women in our field, and you may even be revealing to us that our past conceptions of nursing have been flawed and are ripe for revision.

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