Male nursing students take on ‘women’s work’
|Fourteen nursing students gather in the lobby of McLeod Hall. Nationally, male nurses make up 8.4 percent of baccalaureate nursing students, but at U.Va. they make up only 5.4 percent. The Men in Nursing group formed last year to support male nursing students, recruit more to the field and address health issues that may be more sensitive for men.
By Dan Heuchert
When he first considered entering nursing, Dan David heard it all. Friends warned that he would spend his workdays lifting heavy patients. He saw sitcoms and movies where male nurses were the butt of jokes that often stereotyped them as homosexuals.
Now in his final year at U.Va.’s School of Nursing, the 33-year-old father of two often senses surprise when he tells patients he is a nursing student. He can almost see them thinking, “Isn’t nursing women’s work?”
“It gets even funnier when they find out you’re a nursing student and they ask you if you want to go on to be a doctor,” he said.
David, the president of U.Va.’s Men in Nursing organization, is comfortable enough to laugh off those comments, but it’s not hard to understand where they originate. While women are becoming doctors in increasing numbers — they comprise 67 of the 140 students in the U.Va. School of Medicine’s latest entering class — the field of nursing is still overwhelmingly female.
Of the 372 students working toward a bachelor’s degree in nursing at U.Va., only 20 are men. The vast majority of the men are, like David, older students returning to school for a second degree. Others are experienced registered nurses seeking to add a bachelor’s degree to their resumes.
Of the 241 students enrolled in the “traditional” four-year program for students coming directly out of high school, only four are male.
The second-degree students “are more secure in who they are,” David said. “It’s not easy for an 18-year-old [male] to go into a female-predominate field.”
But it’s not for a lack of persuasion. David has heard of some Southern nursing schools that recruit men at NASCAR races. Others seek out males who have had a service-oriented background, such as Boy Scouts or military corpsmen.
Luring more men into the field won’t necessarily alleviate a growing national nursing shortage. Nursing schools generally have more than enough applicants; addressing the shortage is more a question of increasing capacity and retention than recruitment.
Theresa Carroll, the chief admissions recruiter at the U.Va. Nursing School, sees bringing more men into nursing as a question of overcoming social stigmas that prevent men from pursuing a field where they might flourish.
“Each of us has our talents and gifts, and shouldn’t be excluded from a field because of gender,” she said, adding rhetorically, “Why do we need more women engineers and women physicians?”
There are other reasons for boosting the number of men in nursing — namely, increasing the overall prestige of the field, said sociology professor Sharon Hays.
“Nursing is one of the few professions that is clearly coded female, but the pay scale is better,” mostly because of supply-and-demand factors, Hays said. “But its social prestige is precisely as low as other female-coded professions.”
If there were more men, “Then there would be more prestige and you would expect the pay scale to go even higher,” she added.
Nationally, men make up 8.4 percent of baccalaureate nursing students, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. At U.Va., that number is just 5.4 percent.
The Men in Nursing group started last year. Its missions: supporting male nursing students, helping recruit other men (“Whenever I have a guy who expresses an interest in nursing, I e-mail one of them, or three or four of them, and ask them to follow up,” Carroll said.), and addressing health issues that may be more sensitive for men.
Almost all of the male nursing students are on the group’s e-mail list, and 11 turned out for the last monthly meeting of the fall semester, David said.
One December morning, David sat with the organization’s vice president, Darroch Massie, in the lobby of McLeod Hall, and the two discussed their personal learning experiences.
Massie worked as an emergency room technician about 10 years ago, he said, and later went on to earn an associate’s degree in science at Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg. Now 39, he said he never considered nursing as a field until about two years ago, despite having worked with male nurses in his ER job and having a male cousin who is a nurse.
“It was one of those things that sort of clicked,” Massie said. “People gave me encouragement to go into nursing.”
David earned his B.S. in psychology from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, then targeted a doctorate in neuroscience. But, “I really didn’t like the fact that I didn’t get to interact with people,” he said. So he settled for a master’s in biomedical science from the University of Colorado and set sail for nursing school.
Both say they find the nursing faculty “extra supportive” of men, even if they occasionally slip up and refer to a generic nurse as “she.”
“At first I felt uneasy,” Massie said. “I was much older, and the only guy. But they were very accepting. Being the only guy, it seemed like they kind of adopted me.”
“I’m almost embarrassed,” David said. “I’m a white male, and I’m a minority. … It took me about a month to not remember that I was a guy.”
“It took me about a semester,” Massie said.
Once they hit the hospital floor for clinical training, they found that being male cut both ways with patients. Older men often are more comfortable talking with other men about sensitive matters, Massie said, but “some women don’t want me to give them a bath.”
David often is conscious of his responsibility as a role model for boys he encounters in the hospital. “You want to show a little of what you can do, just to show what the field is,” he said.
The nursing shortage means that few nurses of either gender have trouble finding work after graduation.
Neither man comes across as a barrier-busting crusader. Instead, they are just two guys pursuing a career they find to be rewarding. But if their success can break down stereotypes, all the
“In the field, I hear, ‘I had a male nurse once. He was excellent,’” Massie said, smiling.