Their numbers are growing, yet men still make up only about 5% of the nurses in America. In many ways, it’s hard to understand why that percentage is so low.
As a career, nursing offers a unique combination of job security and adrenaline-pumping excitement. There are also plenty of opportunities for career advancement, from high-paying nurse executive and nurse practitioner positions and to prestigious research positions as nurse scientists. Nursing careers in the military provide opportunities to perform heroic efforts on the battlefield. Given all of these factors that would seem to be highly appealing to men, why aren’t more of them flocking to the field?
Most experts would respond that persistent--and outdated--stereotypes of nursing as a strictly female profession are a big part of the problem. So is the fact that until recently, most recruitment efforts to attract more people to nursing careers have steadfastly ignored this group that accounts for 50% of the population.
Today, however, the nursing profession is working hard to dispel these old misconceptions and make up for lost time. Nursing school deans, faculty and male nursing leaders are developing innovative, stereotype-busting recruitment strategies in the hopes of eventually making the number of men in nursing more comparable to the number of women who are now a sizable presence in traditionally male fields like medicine and law.
In 2003, the Oregon Center for Nursing captured national attention with its “Are You Man Enough to Be a Nurse?” campaign. That dramatic approach is often what’s needed to shake up old-fashioned perceptions about men in nursing--not just among guys, but also in nursing faculty, clinical instructors and female students as well.
To more effectively recruit men into their programs, many nursing schools are choosing not only to shatter the stereotype of nurses being female but also to dismantle the outmoded image of those nurses being chained to patient beds and call lights.
Greg Webb wanted a career that offered some stability but also had great opportunities for advancement. A decade ago, he may not have considered nursing as that dream career. But a new recruitment message put out by the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing convinced him to enroll.
“You have to make guys aware that nursing is about more than just bathing patients,” says Webb, now a junior in the nursing program. “There are so many different areas you can go into with nursing, but many people don’t know about them. It’s such a great field to grow into and you have such a range of opportunities.”
The nursing school’s dean, Jacqueline Dunbar-Jacob, PhD, RN, FAAN, says she’s working very hard to make sure male students know that nursing can involve much more than just bedside care. “We present nursing as a lifetime career as opposed to just talking about the shortage of nurses at the bedside.”
By stressing career advancement potential and beyond-the-bedside opportunities, Dunbar-Jacob believes the school is making both itself and the nursing profession more appealing to male students. The strategy appears to be working. The University of Pittsburgh now boasts 137 men in its undergraduate nursing program, making up 16% of the school’s undergraduate student body.
Dunbar-Jacob is quick to point out that her school isn’t downplaying the importance of compassion and caring or the rewards of direct patient care. Rather, she says, the school just wants students to realize that those skills can take them in many directions and allow them to advance in a professional career.
At Howard University’s Division of Nursing in Washington, D.C., faculty members and administrators at the historically black school have also found that male students respond well to an approach that emphasizes the full spectrum of career possibilities in the field.
“Our nursing students in general, but particularly our male students, are attracted by a lot of research opportunities,” says Dr. Sheryl Nichols, director of student affairs. “They hear about our Howard Scholars Program and our international research programs.” By emphasizing out-of-the-classroom learning experiences, you’re more likely to spark the interest of male students, she notes.
The wide range of opportunities available in nursing is a message that needs to be heard by more people than just potential male nursing students. The University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing is taking that message to a very influential crowd: high school guidance counselors. Traditionally, this group has been notorious for discouraging male students’ interest in nursing and steering them toward medical school instead.
The college developed a brochure just for counselors that shows nursing is more than just bedside care. “The brochure is based on the diverse careers you can pursue as a nurse with a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree,” Dunbar-Jacob says. “It covers all types of nursing--nursing in business, nursing in the military, nursing in research and nursing leadership. We liberally sprinkled the brochure with photos of male alumni,” she adds.
Paul Padilla, 2005-06 national director of the National Student Nurses’ Association’s Breakthrough to Nursing program, which focuses on recruiting students from underrepresented populations into nursing, thinks this strategy is long overdue. A junior at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Padilla never heard one of his guidance counselors mention nursing as a career. Educating this group, he believes, will enable more male students to consider nursing earlier, when there’s still time to take needed courses.
“You don’t want counselors to say, ‘you’re too smart to be a nurse,’” Padilla declares. “[They should be saying,] ‘you’re smart, be a nurse.’”
When the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing raised its admission requirements, the number of all applicants, including men, actually rose, Dunbar-Jacob reports.
“We have upped our admission requirements three times in the last five years. As we have done that, we have noticed an increase in the number of people who are applying, including men.”
By making the nursing school more selective, she explains, it became more attractive to high-achieving students. “As we now see nursing as a career that takes very strong students, I think we’re beginning to see more parents support their sons who are considering nursing as a career.”
The college is also stressing the math and science aspects of the career. “Generally, guys are more interested in math and science,” says Dunbar-Jacob. “Now, when we advertise, we state right up front that you should be taking math and science if you want to be successful [in our program].” This helps dispel the myth of nursing as only a “soft skills” career, she adds.
When looking for ways to reach out to potential male students, don’t overlook the obvious. Marketing materials should always be inclusive. When groups of students are pictured, people of color and men should always be represented. If your budget allows, consider developing marketing materials aimed specifically at men.
While good marketing materials are important, Howard University’s Nichols believes many nursing schools fail to use the number one most effective recruiting tool for attracting more men to their campuses: the male students they already have.
“A lot of the men in our program recruit each other,” she says. “When guys hear about the number of men in our program, they’re interested.” Currently, 70 of the school’s 444 nursing undergraduates are men.
Nichols advises nursing school administrators to encourage their current male students to reach out. “Even if you just have one male student, train that person to recruit. He will become your best recruiting tool,” she maintains.
The outreach shouldn’t end once the new male students are enrolled, Nichols continues. At Howard, men in the nursing program also benefit from a supportive, welcoming environment. The school boasts its own male nursing group, called HUMAN (Howard University Men Advancing in Nursing). The group is active on campus and recently held an event that promoted men’s health.
Nichols also feels that universities could expand the number of male students in their nursing programs by focusing on an often-overlooked group: nontraditional students. “The majority of our students come in looking for a second career,” she says. “Not many come in straight from high school.”
In addition, the Division of Nursing has found success in recruiting from within the broader Howard University student population. Nursing programs located on large university campuses will find many students walking around with “undecided” majors.
“Some [male] students may first choose engineering or another major and then, once they’re on campus, they realize that nursing is a viable career,” Nichols says. “We make it very simple for them to come into our program.” Students who have already been admitted to Howard could be admitted to nursing with a 2.5 GPA, she adds.
Padilla is one of those students who didn’t start out as a nursing major. He entered college thinking he would pursue a career in physical therapy, then switched to a physician’s assistant program before finally deciding on nursing. He was spurred into the career by a male nurse he met while working in an emergency room. “It had never dawned on me until then that nursing would be a good choice,” he says.
Some experts feel that attracting men into nursing school is one thing, but keeping them enrolled is an even bigger challenge.
“In the programs I have looked at, male retention rates are lower [than for female students]. Men are more likely to drop out. They are more often likely to fail,” says Chad O’Lynn, PhD, RN, an instructor at the University of Portland School of Nursing in Portland, Ore., and national secretary of the American Assembly for Men in Nursing. O’Lynn has researched male nursing students for several years and he published his findings, “Gender-Based Barriers for Male Students in Nursing Education,” in the May 2004 issue of the Journal of Nursing Education. His book, Men in Nursing: History, Challenges and Opportunities, will be published by Springer Publishing later this year.
While many factors that lead male students to abandon their nursing studies can’t always be controlled by faculty or administrators, O’Lynn believes that some nursing schools may actually be creating additional barriers that make it difficult for male nurses to graduate. Perhaps the biggest factor that drives male students out of nursing school is isolation, he suggests. O’Lynn thinks schools like Howard that are providing support networks to help bring male nursing students together are headed in the right direction.
Before coming to the University of Portland, O’Lynn taught at Montana State University-Bozeman, where he led a support group program that brought male nursing students together once a month to discuss whatever was on their minds. He borrowed the idea from a successful program at the nursing school that brought Native American students together. “Men [in nursing school] need a safe environment where they can talk about anything,” he stresses.
O’Lynn also implemented a male-to-male mentoring program at Montana State and he would like to see more nursing schools offer this type of support system as well. “There are so few male nurses,” he says. “Men [who are nursing students] don’t have role models and they need them. They need to see how a man functions as a nurse. For example, how does he communicate?”
Padilla agrees that having a mentor would have made his journey through nursing school easier. “I don’t feel the same way about my clinical experiences that my female counterparts do,” he says. “The problems they had I don’t have. I have different problems. It would have been good to have somebody who was in the level above me who I could bounce my feelings off of and not feel self-conscious about it.”
Nursing programs rated by Male Nurse Magazine and its readers for their attention to training and recruitment of male nurses:
1. University of Pennsylvania
2. University of Texas-Houston
3. Ohio State University
4. Duke University
5. Auburn University
6. Raritan Valley Community College
7. Florida State University
8. Michigan State University
9. University of Tennessee
10. San Diego State
Source: Male Nurse Magazine, www.malenursemagazine.com
Dr. Chad O’Lynn, an instructor at the University of Portland School of Nursing and national secretary of the American Assembly for Men in Nursing, has extensively researched and written about the challenges male nursing students experience. His research has found that many nursing schools--knowingly or unknowingly--create barriers that keep men from succeeding in their programs. Is your institution one of them? O’Lynn recommends taking a good, hard look at your program to make sure the following bad practices aren’t included:
• One Pronoun Only. Professors who only refer to nurses as “she” often make male students question whether they’re going into the right field. “Using gender- neutral language and gender-neutral images is very important,” O’Lynn advises. “When a professor discusses nursing, it needs to be reflective of all students. Male students need to be able to see themselves in that discussion.”
• Separate Learning Experiences. It’s very important that male and female students share the same learning experiences. O’Lynn believes nursing schools are doing better in this regard than they have in the past, but many programs still put up discriminatory barriers when it comes to clinical experiences. He recalls being barred from examining women during his clinical experience on an OB/GYN ward. “I was required to pass the same exams [as female students] but I wasn’t given the same experience,” he says.
Today, O’Lynn still hears of professors or staff nurses secretly going to patients’ rooms before clinical sessions to ask if patients mind having a male nursing student. “No one would ever ask if you mind having a female nurse,” he argues.
• Ignoring Male Topics. Realize that your male students do face unique challenges and have concerns that all too often aren’t addressed in the classroom. For example, says O’Lynn, many male students fear that examining a female student could result in a claim of inappropriate touching. Classroom instruction should cover the basics of appropriate touching. “This is something that is never addressed,” he contends. “Nursing textbooks ignore it. Male students have to figure it out alone.”
• Venus vs. Mars. “Men and women communicate differently. That’s no great surprise,” O’Lynn says. “But male students sometimes find it difficult to communicate. If a male student is blunt, he will be criticized as not [being] caring. All the speech communication issues that go on in the outside world are going on inside and men have to negotiate it on their own.”
• Too Much Pressure. While the pressure of trying to succeed in a rigorous nursing program is stressful for all students, faculty members often fail to realize the special challenges male students face. For instance, says O’Lynn, their choice of nursing as a career may not have the same support from family and friends that female students receive. Financial difficulties and isolation often lead male students to question their call to nursing. Inside the classroom, they often feel like they must excel in order to prove they’re qualified to be nurses. “A number of men feel like they have to prove themselves because nurses are usually women. Additional pressure is placed on them,” O’Lynn explains.
He urges nursing faculty to look for common signs of stress in their male students--e.g., a change in attitude, grades or attendance. If you see those, take a few minutes to ask if everything is OK. While you may not be able to remove all the pressure, knowing that you care and having the opportunity to talk could keep the student from dropping out.