Craig LeMoult
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Why so few male nurses?

(Published in the Austin American Statesman)

Craig LeMoult
Columbia News Service

When two of his childhood friends and business colleagues died of cancer in their 20s, the loss forced Kevin Smith to reevaluate his career. The experience left him feeling helpless, and he wasn't sure what to do about it. Then his sister suggested something that had never occurred to Smith. Why not become a nurse?

Nursing had run in Smith's family. His mother, both grandmothers and an aunt were nurses. But his biggest influence in making the jump into the profession was his grandfather, who, as a second career, had become a licensed practical nurse. So Smith went to nursing school and began working in the surgical intensive care unit at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y. But Smith remains, like his grandfather, a minority in the profession.

According to the American Nurses Association, only 6 percent of nurses in the United States today are men. As the baby boom generation hits retirement age, demand is growing for quality nursing care but hospitals and other facilities face a significant shortage of nurses to meet that need. The American Hospital Association estimates that 75 percent of all hospital vacancies are for nurses, and the Department of Labor has identified registered nursing as the top occupation in terms of job growth through 2012, with more than 1 million new and replacement nurses needed in that time.

Though women have successfully broken into the ranks of medicine--the Association of American Medical Colleges reports that the majority of medical students are now female--nursing has yet to see a similar shift in the gender balance.

Still, men are beginning a push to solidify their roles within this traditionally female-dominated occupation. “Men in Nursing,” the first professional journal to target this population, was recently launched by publisher Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

“Our whole intent with ‘Men in Nursing' is to provide a professional journal that's going to really serve as a vehicle to celebrate the accomplishments of men in the field,” said Robert Kepshire, the publication's editor. Kepshire began his career as a firefighter and emergency medical technician before starting a 20-year nursing career that has included working on a helicopter to transport critically ill patients.

One of the biggest obstacles to attracting more men to nursing, say those in the field, is the lingering notion that nursing is simply not something that men do. The word itself is inherently feminine; it also means breastfeeding a child.

“There's still a male nurse stereotype as some flouncy person dancing down the hallway of a hospital who is a woman wannabe,” said Robert Abel, a nurse manager at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York City.

Male nurses like Abel often find that patients approach them with the assumption that they are not smart enough to become doctors.

“It's looked upon, I think, by the medical end of things as a less-than profession,” he said. “Many patients over the years have said, ‘You're the nurse? How come you never wanted to go to medical school?' as if medical school is so much more of a goal than nursing would ever be.”

For some men, nursing represents a secure career move. Scott Flaming worked for 15 years as an insurance underwriter for Fortune 500 companies before moving to El Paso, Texas, where he had difficulty finding a job. He decided to enroll at New Mexico State University, where he will earn his RN degree this August.

“At my age, I don't necessarily have 12 years to go to medical school,” said the 44-year-old.

Flaming said he had found that because middle management salaries have been stagnant in general, a switch to nursing doesn't necessarily mean a pay cut. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual pay of registered nurses was $52,330 in May 2004.

Another challenge to entering the field of nursing, regardless of one's gender, is getting into a nursing school. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, nursing schools had to turn away more than 30,000 qualified applicants in 2004 because of capacity constraints. Some argue that a quota system should reserve admission slots for men.

“Just because there aren't enough training opportunities available, that doesn't mean the ones that are there should continue to go to females only,” said Jim Raper, president of the American Assembly for Men in Nursing, an organization devoted to supporting male nurses and encouraging more men to enter the field.

Once men successfully enter the field, they may find that being in the minority has additional challenges. Some have claimed that they have been held back in their careers as a result of gender discrimination. In specialties like obstetrics and gynecology, in which women often prefer to have female nurses, courts have ruled that hospitals have the right to hire women over men because of their gender.

But Joan Evans, an RN who has researched the role of gender nursing and earned a Ph.D. in education focusing on the subject, says men also have advantages in the field.

“Many men who go into nursing, whether they desire to or not, end up in leadership roles or in the high status elite specialties like intensive care, emergency and operating room,” she said.

Evans' research suggests that gender plays a complex role in nursing and that leveling the playing field may not be as simple as a numbers game.

“There's no doubt that we need talented men and women as nurses," she said. “But I think it's very dangerous to bring larger numbers of men into the profession without any analysis of how men's presence in the profession is affecting men nurses as well as women colleagues.”

Evans argues that nurses lack respect because of a societal devaluation of women, and that part of the push to increase the number of men in the field comes from female nurses who believe it will increase the prestige of all nurses. Smith, who now protects nurses' contracts as a representative for the New York State Nurses Association, agrees.

“They got rid of their caps and skirts and everything else, but they're still treated the same way,” he said. “Our society has conditioned people to view certain things with a lesser value, and one of the things that has been viewed upon with a lesser value is the profession of nursing, because it's predominantly women.

"When people, whether they're doctors or patients, see a male nurse," Smith said, "it's a little bit eye-opening for them.”