If Rosie Can Rivet, Why Can’t I Go to Nursing School?

By Linda Bright

It’s no secret that male nurses are more common than ever.
What many people don’t realize is that many male nurses still struggle with stigmatization as a result of their chosen career. It doesn’t seem to matter how many people male nurses help or how many lives they save—there’s always someone trying to argue that nursing isn’t a “masculine” profession.

For many people, the stigmatization that surrounds male nursing is so significant that it actually deters many them from pursuing nursing as a career. A study conducted by Duke University back in April discovered that most male undergraduates don’t consider a career in nursing since it is “typically viewed as a female profession.”

This is a huge problem, since there’s a current shortage of nurses that’s only going to get worse when the Baby Boomer generation finally reaches retirement. If we’re going to get our failing healthcare system back to where it needs to be, we need to be encouraging undergraduate students to consider nursing as a career—regardless of what gender they happen to be.

In order to do this, we first need to understand where the stigmatization surrounding male nurses comes from. If we don’t understand the ways in which gendered stereotypes perpetuate themselves, we’ll never be able to effectively call them into question. Here are a few things that contribute to and/or sustain negative perceptions of male nurses:

1. History—
When the U.S. Army Nurse Corps was formed in 1901, men were prohibited from serving as nurses—presumably to encourage those men to volunteer for combat-related roles.

The prohibition of male nurses wasn’t lifted until the early 1950’s, after the end of the Korean War. This means that, for a half a century, Americans were culturally indoctrinated to believe that nursing was a female profession. By the time the U.S. Army Nurse Corps finally decided to allow male nurses to serve, stereotypes about the gendered nature of nursing were already deeply embedded in America’s cultural consciousness.

2. The media—
When male nurses are depicted in movies or on television, they usually depicted in one of two ways—either A) humorously or B) in ways that indict their relationship to masculinity.

The movie “Meet the Parents” is a pretty great example of the way that male nurses are traditionally portrayed by the media. The main character, Gaylord Focker, is a male nurse. When other characters in the movie find out that Focker is a male nurse, they immediately question his masculinity:

Jack Byrnes: Greg’s in medicine too.
Bob Banks: What field?
Greg Focker: Nursing.
Bob Banks: Ha ha ha ha. No, really, what field are you in?
Greg Focker: Nursing.

The problem isn’t just that there’s an overabundance of negative portrayals of male nurses. It works both ways. There’s also a lack of positive portrayals of male nurses. Think about it—when’s the last time you saw Hollywood alpha males like Samuel L. Jackson or Harrison Ford play a male nurse in a movie?

3. Gender stereotypes—
The dominant cultural discourse that surrounds the medical profession is also a contributing factor. In our society, certain characteristics are often labeled as either masculine or feminine. For example, in our society, aggression is often seen as a masculine characteristic. The flipside of this is that the willingness to nurture something is often seen as an inherently feminine characteristic.

Are these characteristics inherently masculine and/or feminine? Absolutely not—gender is a social construct, a cultural script that dictates behavior according to antiquated ideas of what it means to be a man and/or a woman.

There are plenty of sensitive, nurturing men. Likewise, there are many strong, assertive women. Nevertheless, people continue to insist that biological males who exhibit characteristics that are traditionally considered feminine (empathy, sensitivity, willingness to nurture, etc.) are somehow failing to live up to our society’s definition of what it means to be a real man.

As long as gendered stereotypes about nursing persist, male undergraduate students will continue to find excuses to not pursue nursing as a career. We’ll never fix the current nursing shortage unless we challenge the ways in which history, the media and our own understanding of gender shape how we categorize certain professions as inherently masculine or feminine.

Linda Bright is a mother, a feminist and a formal hospital
administrator. She’s also a staff writer and public relations
coordinator for MyNursingDegree.com. Given her experience in hospital
administration, she writes primarily about patient’s rights, healthcare
reform and other issues related to the healthcare industry. In her free
time, she enjoys Sudoku, spending time with her family and playing with
her poodle, Max.