Telling my friends and family I was planning to start a degree in nursing, I was met with support, encouragement, and just a dash of “are you sure?” for good measure. What I wasn’t expecting though, were the occasional bemused questions regarding if I was going to be somewhat of an anomaly in my cohort, and by extension, my career.
You see, there’s something that makes me a bit different to the majority of my class. I’m male.
For the first time in my life, I get to experience something that must be felt acutely by so many women around the world: entering a lecture theatre, a laboratory, a workforce, dominated by the opposite sex. The names on the textbooks are female, and when we learn about history the characters are the Florence Nightingales and the Lillian Walds. There are men, but they are a minority. I consider myself very lucky that being a minority in this context is refreshing for me; I know that this is not the case for many. I’m glad that I’ve been able to see this side of things, and I hope it makes me a more conscientious clinician when I complete my degree: equity is, and always will be at the heart of nursing.
I’ve read a bit about the “glass elevator” — a phenomenon where in industries traditionally dominated by females, men end up progressing upwards more quickly and being paid more. In an increasingly competitive job market for my generation, it can seem only too tempting to grab with both hands whatever advantage is slung our way, fair or not. Personally, like I’d imagine many others, I feel uncomfortable about any advantage given to me because I’m male, and giving merit based on sex rather than skill undermines the notion of patients receiving the best care possible.
On a personal level, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve really been nothing but cheered on and well wished. My friends think I’ve made a fantastic career choice that suits me perfectly and my family feel the same- my parents bought me a stethoscope and sphygmomanometer for my birthday this year. Living in a large, progressive city, and having peers that share my views, it may be that I am met with more encouragement than perhaps some other men entering the profession, but I do believe that stereotypes are lifting and attitudes are changing.
The sheer range of nursing as a career means that there is a fulfilling and rewarding path for everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, orientation, religious affiliation or anything else. We are the largest group of healthcare professionals in the country. We care for people from all walks of life and we need to connect with all of them in unique and varied ways. So why shouldn’t nurses be made up of all sorts too?
The shift in thinking needs to come from both sides. As a society, we must fight against gender stereotyping and understand the harm that it does not only to individuals but to entire systems, and we mustn’t push our boys and men away from being soft and caring because these traits are considered feminine. From the other side of the fence, as members of the nursing community we must quash the negative stereotypes that plague our profession.
We shouldn’t be drawing men into nursing with the promise of a “glass elevator”, but rather espousing the rewarding nature of the career and putting our collective best foot forward to show that we are more than the public’s perception. If all the stereotypes could by some magic melt away, and people saw nurses for the dynamic masters of art and science that they truly are, then men would be entering the profession in droves.
It’s important to acknowledge that there is so much that people from all parts of the gender spectrum can bring to the table; there are endless fields that have been enriched by improving sex ratios, and nursing could benefit from doing the same. My female classmates have taught me so much already, and I hope I’ve been able to give them something from a male perspective as well. But I know that if I can’t do that, at least I can grab stuff from the top shelf for them.