Which is better for a patient, a man who cares or a woman who doesn’t? I have often asked myself this or similar questions during recent years as I’ve transitioned into health care from research. It seems to me the answer is virtually always the former, although that doesn’t mean there are no circumstances in which a “woman who doesn’t care” couldn’t just as easily accomplish what needs to be done. So, how might we think about men in nursing?
Let’s think about the “man who cares” part of the question. One of the most difficult aspects of nursing for some men to navigate is that of expressing caring. Caring itself has long been thought of as a central activity or theme of nursing, yet it has also been subject to many different definitions. My goal here isn’t to analyze these definitions, and I’m not even certain an exhaustively common definition is necessary at this point. There are so many people engaged in the conversation on caring and exercising caring in nursing with such diversity that a common definition may be a moot point.
However, one subject I would like to broach is the question of whether or not men are as capable as women of exercising caring in nursing. The exercise of caring among male nurses has, I think, been a neglected possibility for some. The long-time association of nursing with female practitioners and of caring itself with femininity may be one of the drivers of the predominance of women in nursing.
Some men who enter the profession of nursing have experienced lowered expectations with respect to the caring they provide, as if they are less capable or less inclined to provide care. On the other hand, nursing education may not adequately address the provision of care by men specifically, leaving men to figure out on their own how to provide care with masculinity without, among other things, leaving themselves open to accusations of misconduct toward their patients, particularly women. The result of these dynamics could be the equivalent of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Men may fail to be educated into the role of caring in nursing, yet may all the while be expected to provide care that is of inferior quality. Further, they may even be criticized for not providing care in the manner in which women are accustomed.
Assuming these dynamics are accompanied by conscious decisions on the part of nursing educators and others in positions of nursing leadership, a case could be made that these dynamics exemplify gender discrimination and stereotyping in nursing. However, they may instead be the results of widespread ignorance and failure to articulate expectations and possibilities. In any case, all stakeholders could benefit from thinking more carefully and thoroughly about the relationship between nursing, caring, and gender.
Gender diversity in nursing must be about more than the proportion of staff who are male or the proportion of room assignments given to males. There are also worthy questions related to the possibility of females being educated to provide care in ways commonly thought of as masculine. (Remember the “woman who doesn’t care” part of the initial question?) Also, there is a need to continue to refine our understanding of the nature of caring in nursing and other fields. Who is to say that the increasing presence of males in nursing will not bring about a redefinition of nursing itself and recognition that there may be room for a diversity of professions and roles taking part in what we currently call the field of nursing?