July 8, 2020

Looking for an Expanded Definition of Nursing

I recently introduced the thought that, rather than simply working as nurses, men in the “profession formerly known as nursing,” otherwise known as “male nurses” or “men in nursing,” might actually be engaged in something dramatically different from what has traditionally been called nursing by virtue of the fact that they’re men. I know it may seem to some that I’m going out on a limb by saying that, but I mean exactly that. As a man in nursing, I have often asked myself what precisely I’m doing as I provide care in a work environment dominated by women.

I find it difficult to even think about the issue I’m exploring without utilizing the common vocabulary in reference to nursing, but I find that vocabulary distorted by the shear dominance of women in the field. By some accounts, the root metaphor for the field calls to mind the act of a mother feeding and tending her offspring. During my time as a nurse, I’ve often noticed among my colleagues what I suspect may be a culturally-conditioned maternalism directed toward patients and other nurses. In caricature, it’s as if some nurses are competing with each other to determine who’s the best mother of all.

As strange as that may be, still stranger may be the interactions between nurses and other health care professionals. To understand what I’m talking about, I encourage you to spend some time observing and listening to the interactions between nurses and physicians as well as others in healthcare. What do you notice? Do nurses tend to treat physicians and others in the same way they treat each other? Or do they generally adapt their behavior to others so that they seem to treat some professionals with more or less respect, more or less maternalism?

One way of looking at my aim here is to consider the possibility that, with proportional increases in male participation in the profession commonly referred to as nursing, it may become fruitful to look for alternate metaphors for the work of nurses. It’s not that the work of nursing is women’s work. It’s not that either men or women perform the work of nursing better than the other. It’s not that we simply need more people to “nurse like a dude.” What I mean is something along the lines of the notion that the work we’re accustomed to calling nursing is more robust than any effort to increase gender diversity or equality could ever realize.

If we were willing to think of nursing differently, we might also be willing to expand our vocabulary to include “female nurse” as a counterpart to “male nurse.” This may cause pain to some who would like to do away with gendered terminology in this area, so that we can no longer use the term “male nurse” to indicate a man in nursing or “female nurse” to indicate a female in nursing, but in reality the expansion of our vocabulary with an emphasis on differentiating gender may be just what’s needed at this point.

Perhaps men are doing something much more profound than increasing the gender diversity of nursing. What if men in the profession are actually highlighting the need for nursing to transcend a cultural barrier within the confines of which nursing has long been associated with female gender and femininity? Personally and professionally, I’m looking for neither gender equality nor gender diversity in nursing. The work of nursing seems inherently diverse, as diverse as humanity, and patients expect competent care, whether provided by a man or a woman.

There’s no need to adopt an alternate or double standard by which to judge men and women in nursing. Instead, we might all be wiser to consider redefining nursing by expanding our definition to include distinctly gender-specific modes of interaction and provision of care. It only remains for us to consider how the care men provide and the care women provide may be complementary within a larger framework.

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