The U.S. nursing shortage is only expected to get worse over the next decade, and many industry experts believe bringing more male nurses into the profession may be part of the solution.
While more men have entered nursing over the past four decades, male nurses still make up a relatively small percentage of the nursing workforce.
A 2013 study by the U.S. Census Bureau found the number of male nurses more than tripled between 1970 and 2011 to about 330,000. Despite the growing number, male nurses still accounted for only about 10% of all nurses in the U.S.
Experts cite a variety of reasons for fewer male nurses such as societal gender stereotypes and the lack of male role models in nursing.
However, with a rapidly worsening nursing shortage because of the aging baby boomer population, the need for gender diversity is more important than ever for nursing schools and health systems.
More male nurses are important for diversity
Normajean Colby, PhD, RN, CPN, assistant professor of nursing at the Widener University School of Nursing in Pennsylvania, an expert on diversity in nursing, agrees gender diversity is an increasingly important issue.
“We need more men in nursing because we certainly have patients who are men,” Colby said. “We need to be in tune, in sync with the background and perspective of the people we take care of, and we’re not there yet.”
She said gender diversity brings a different perspective to the profession and benefits not only patients, but men who already are in nursing.
Colby has asked her male students to suggest ways to make nursing more inclusive. “They say we need more male faculty in schools and more (nurse) preceptors with men in that role,” she said.
Colby added: “We also need gender-neutral language in our textbooks. We can’t have a conversation when a nurse is always ‘she’ or ‘her’; the pictures need to reflect that, too. We need to be asking high school students, ‘Why not nursing?’ … and we need to be talking to those in nursing schools to see what’s working, what’s not, as well as talking to nurses in practice.”
Colby said it’s essential to fight stereotypes by teaching youth men can be professional caregivers.
“We have to fix that early on by doing campaigns and going to career days, elementary schools and Boy Scout camps,” she said, adding that she frequently takes a male nursing student with her to career days, and emphasizes nursing is a career for men as well as women.
Early exposure to nursing is key
Chris Kowal, DNP, MSN-MOL-Ed, RN, a nurse for 20 years, currently is an ICU nurse at St. Joseph’s Health in Syracuse, N.Y., and an adjunct professor with the American Sentinel University’s online nursing program.
He agreed encouraging students of all ages to consider nursing is a good idea.
“My hospital has a volunteer program where high school students come in for the summer,” he said. “They’re not delivering patient care, but taking patients in wheelchairs to be discharged. It’s one way to come in and observe the whole milieu of what the health system is like.”
Kowal said he originally wanted to be a forensic pathologist, but working as a nursing assistant as an undergrad opened his mind to nursing.
“We need to find ways to allow people to have more exposure to nursing, invite them into the healthcare system in other roles where they can get a good paycheck and observe what nursing does, and it may take away any stigma as to what men think about nursing,” he said.
Brent MacWilliams, PhD, MSN, RN, ANP-BC, is dean, post-licensure program director, and an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh College of Nursing. He’s also president of the American Association for Men in Nursing, which works to improve gender diversity in nursing.
The American Association for Men in Nursing has two major initiatives to encourage men in nursing.
- Allowing millennials to run its membership program.
- Giving best workplace and best school awards to organizations with evidence-based programs that promote gender diversity.
The organization is getting a new perspective by having millennials run its membership program, previously overseen by baby boomers.
MacWilliams said nurses often have a life coach who encourages them to enter the profession and, because millennials have fewer preconceived notions about men and women, hopefully they will coach other talented young men into the role.
The second initiative is giving best workplace and best school awards to organizations with evidence-based programs that promote gender diversity. By constantly measuring their efforts to be more inclusive year after year, institutions are expanding their outreach.
“It’s not so much about winning an award, but creating sustainable change over time,” MacWilliams said. Several organizations have made such progress that they won multiple awards during the program, which is about 10 years old.
Marketing also makes a difference
Marketing was cited as another way to attract men to nursing.
“Schools and agencies need to market to men: high wages and expanding job opportunities in nursing makes this field attractive, offering stability and flexibility,” Kowal said.
At American Sentinel University, “we work to market our programs to both male and female nurses,” he said, “showing what they can do above and beyond after they’ve earned a degree.”
American Sentinel University also offers sub-specialty degrees programs that attract men who may not have considered nursing before.
“There’s a lot of second- and third-career people coming into nursing, and there’s an opportunity to market to those individuals, too,” Kowal said.
MacWilliams agrees accelerated BSN and MSN offerings are attracting more men.
“We’re making great inroads in that 30% of those in accelerated nurse’s programs are men,” he said. “With a second-degree program, you don’t have as many stereotyping problems, because they’ve either been medics or had training in a hospital and have seen what nurses do. They’re also older and more self-assured in their identity.”
Having more male nurses benefits the profession and patients, Kowal concluded.
“Encouraging men to enter into the nursing profession only works to instill strength in numbers, diversity and increased focus on quality, safety, operational productivity and readmission prevention,” he said.
For more on diversity, check out our Strive for Diversity in Nursing guide.
Freelance writer Sue Pierman contributed to the writing and research of this article.