Men in nursing: Shattering stereotypes and carving out opportunities

When Sylvain "Syl" Trepanier, DNP, RN, stepped into nursing 32 years ago, he didn't have any reservations about entering a female-dominated profession. He chose nursing over medical or osteopathy school because of the profession's emphasis on holistic, whole-person care.

While the choice seemed obvious to Dr. Trepanier, who now serves as system chief nursing officer at Renton, Wash.-based Providence, he was often greeted with surprise when telling people what he did for a living.

"I would say, 'I'm a nurse,' and the immediate response would be, 'Oh, you're a male nurse?'" he told Becker's. "I don't hear that anymore. I think society has changed, and we are certainly more comfortable with it."

Ernest J. Grant, PhD, RN, president of the American Nurses Association, shared a similar experience of surprise and mistaken identity.

"When I first began my nursing career in the 1970s, male nurses were often mistaken as either orderlies or physicians," Dr. Grant told Becker's. "There was also a harmful preconceived notion and antiquated assumptions regarding gender roles around those men who chose to become nurses."

Becker's spoke with several male nursing leaders about the profession's gender dynamics and how the pandemic has influenced men's interest in the field. 

A female-dominated profession

The nursing profession is working to deconstruct gender norms dating back several centuries. In novels written in the late 1800s to the 1970s, 99 percent of the nurses described were women, adding to the public perception of nursing as a woman's job, one literature review found. Analyzing images from hospital administration journals published between the 1930s and 1950s, another group of researchers found that women were often presented as young and subordinate to male physicians and were mainly depicted as women. The war efforts of the 1940s, though, improved the public's perception of nurses, boosting respect and admiration for the profession.

Female nurses account for around 2.1 million full-time registered nurses, while men account for less than 500,000 of them, according to data from the 2019 American Community Survey. Men are more likely to be found in higher-paid nursing positions, with 41 percent of all nurse anesthetists being men.

Between 2014 and 2019, only 1 in 10 registered nurses were male, but the share of male nurses is increasing slowly over time. In 2014, male nurses accounted for 9.85 percent of all nurses, but in 2019, that figure had increased to 11.5 percent, according to Statistica. While progress is slow, it is still moving in the direction of better representation and diversity.

Dr. Grant said he expects change will accelerate in the years to come. 

"I can attest to the fact that the nursing profession is changing both in terms of acceptance and assimilation of nurses who are men," he said. "Moreover, the data is showing that the number of men in the nursing profession is expected to grow substantially over the next few years." 

The male nursing workforce: 2 key trends

As men enter the nursing profession, two trends have been observed. One is that men are more likely to enter nursing as a second career option. 

Angelo Venditti, DNP, RN, executive vice president for patient care and chief nursing executive of Philadelphia-based Temple University Health System, said men who have careers established in other areas are finding their way to the nursing profession.

"I've met male nurses who were previously stockbrokers and construction workers who joined nursing and absolutely loved it," Dr. Venditti told Becker's. "They always end up doing quite well."

A second trend is an increase in male nurses taking up leadership roles at university health systems. Scott Kelnhofer, executive director of the American Association for Men in Nursing, attributes this factor to the improved gender equity happening in the nursing profession. 

"For instance, not only is there a male serving as dean of Duke University's School of Nursing, 20 percent of its full-time regular-rank faculty members and 19 percent of its staff are men. A larger number of male faculty members means DUSON is able to provide mentoring and unique support to male students," Mr. Kelnhofer told Becker's.

The nursing workforce has to reflect the diversity of the patient population. By having more male nurses in university health systems, young men entering college are increasingly becoming aware of the opportunities and possibilities a nursing career can provide them, according to Mr. Kelnhofer. 

Is COVID-19 closing nursing's gender gap? 

The COVID-19 pandemic completely shifted supply and demand for nurses, creating new economic conditions that may be encouraging more men to join the profession, according to Dr. Trepanier.

Many hospitals and health systems are offering nurses sign-on bonuses of $20,000 or higher to aid recruitment efforts amid heightened demand for nurses during the pandemic. Demand for travel nurses has also skyrocketed, as many hospital nurses have opted to leave their roles for temporary, high-paying positions.

"You could become a nurse today and get a job tomorrow," Dr. Venditti said. "That's how in demand nurses are right now."

Dr. Grant said he believes more men will enter the profession amid this heightened demand. 

"Encouraging more men to enter the nursing profession can also help address the current nursing shortage crisis by providing a more diverse group of healthcare advocates for patients," he said. 

Vivian Health, a healthcare recruiting firm, saw record-high demand for travel nurses in September 2021 — 68 percent higher demand than September 2020. The company also saw all-time high average pay for travel nurse contracts at $3,110 per week, up 39.4 percent from September 2020. 

"There are different economics around making the decision about whether you would want to be a nurse," Dr. Trepanier said. "I know more men would be inclined to now join the ranks of the profession because it's more on par with other types of work that they could be doing."

The pandemic has also underscored the importance of diversity, inclusion, equity and a sense of belonging for patients and healthcare staff. This focus, alongside society's progress in rewriting gender norms, may also be encouraging more men to join the field, according to Dr. Grant and Dr. Trepanier.

"Men have been historically underrepresented in the nursing profession, and the nursing workforce should reflect the patient population it serves," Dr. Grant said. "Promoting and increasing realistic images of nurses must be intentional."

If the pandemic has inspired more men to enter the profession, clear data on this trend will not be available for several years, once these individuals complete their schooling and enter the workforce. However, self-reported data that Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University's School of Nursing shared with the American Association for Men in Nursing in 2021 shows the number of men enrolled in its nursing program has increased 32 percent over the past three years, according to Mr. Kelnhofer. 

Among several high-profile nursing programs nationwide, 12 to 18 percent of BSN undergraduate students were male, he said, citing 2021 data the schools supplied as part of the application for AAMN's Best Schools for Men in Nursing Award. 

Ultimately, leaders agreed: Nursing is a great profession for anyone to get into, regardless of gender.  

"It's an amazing, extremely fulfilling profession. Regardless of your gender, there is something for everyone," Dr. Trepanier said. "If it's important for someone to make a difference in the life of others, I can't think of any other profession that can completely fill you up."

"For me, being a nurse ticks many boxes and extends beyond the bedside, allowing me to touch so many lives and give back to the community," Dr. Grant told Becker's. "I’m proud that I have also been able to help shatter antiquated gender stereotypes about the nursing profession."

 

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