July 8, 2020

Personal Reflections on Gender Bias in Nursing Education

The other day, I received my October 2019 print edition of American Nurse Today, the official journal of American Nurses Association. In the Healthy Nurse section, there’s a brief Viewpoint article by David Foley, PhD, MSN, RN-BC, CNE, MPA of Notre Dame College in Cleveland, Ohio. The article, entitled “How to avoid gender bias in nursing education,” caught my eye for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it presents a male perspective on the central issue of gender bias in nursing education and in the profession as a whole.

Foley writes in the hope of inspiring nursing educators and clinical professionals to take responsibility for the ways in which they treat the phenomenon of gender in nursing. Pointing out that nursing educators and other role models are highly influential in the framing of professional identity, he describes his use of the tabletop game KerPlunk to illustrate the evolving nature of professional identity in light of identity-shaping statements and circumstances.

In the classroom, Foley also uses the game to illustrate the power differential between members of an in group or power majority versus an out group or power minority. In doing so, he points out that, as the vast majority of practicing nurses are female, they are collectively in a position to “maintain a self-perpetuating paradigm or allow unfettered exploration into all aspects of nursing” through their educational practices.

As I said, Foley’s article intrigued me in part because of his presence as a man in nursing with an educator’s role. I myself aspire to become a nursing educator. Beyond that I’m a game enthusiast, and I love to learn about other people’s experiences with games. As an educator in contexts outside nursing, I have enjoyed the creation and use of games for my students, and I will no doubt incorporate play into my interactions with students.

Perhaps one of the most important reasons for my interest in Foley’s article is his inclusion of anecdotal accounts of gender bias in nursing education. Although I know gender bias is a significant factor in shaping professional identity, it may be more influential for men than women because there is such a lopsided gender-based power differential in nursing.

I consider myself blessed to have gone through nursing school having experienced relatively few instances of gender bias. As expected, the nursing faculty of Indiana Wesleyan University were mostly female, but they were intentional about living out the gender-affirming aspect of their Christian faith. One might say that this was because there was a large enough contingent of men in my graduating cohort, approximately 20%, to prevent certain common biases from taking root. However, I have vivid memories of various faculty specifically encouraging us men to pursue our interests in any field of nursing we chose or eliciting the input of us men in areas of nursing that are typically thought to be lesser choices for men.

All nurses participate in framing each other’s professional identity by virtue of the fact that we must interact with each other during the course of our work. Not only do nurses generally affect the developing professional identities of men in nursing, but nurses also affect the professional identities of women in nursing. Every male unjustly prodded toward a given role in nursing may correspond to any number of women in nursing who are neglected with respect to that role.

I’m inclined to agree with Foley, to a point, that the profession of nursing currently lacks the critical mass among nursing educators necessary to affect widespread change in the area of gender bias. I don’t know what Foley’s opinions are of the nature of nursing and its relation to gender, but I’m not convinced that nursing as a whole hasn’t been erroneously framed throughout its history.

Perhaps the problem facing us–not just men in nursing but all nurses–is more than simply increasing gender diversity and minimizing gender bias in nursing. It would be tragic if we were to achieve both of those goals without refining our understanding of the nature of nursing and its fundamental concepts and metaphors.

I know that last statement cries out to be unpacked, but I’ll have to accomplish that in future posts. Did you read Foley’s article? What do you think about the problem of gender bias in nursing education?

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