Why are there so few male nurses?

Dan Wicks, charge nurse at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS foundation trust, London: ‘No one has commented on me being a matron and a man.’ Photograph: Sam Friedrich for the Guardian
Last year just 11.4% of registered nurses in the UK were male. Continued stereotyping is partly to blame
Efforts to promote gender equality in workplaces of all kinds may be widespread, but the number of men in nursing remains stubbornly low. Last year just 11.4% of registered nurses in the UK were male, according to figures from the Nursing & Midwifery Council – only a marginal increase from five years earlier, when they made up 11% of the workforce.
And the proportion of nursing students in the UK who are men hasn’t shifted either, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency: in 2016 it stood at 11.6%, compared with 11.5% a decade earlier.
“It’s disappointing,” says Janet Davies, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, “because we’ve promoted nursing for men. I think it’s good to match the balance in the communities we’re working for. And also we don’t want to lose those people who would make fantastic nurses.”
She believes continued stereotyping about what a nurse looks like is partly to blame – despite the presence of male nurse characters in TV dramas. “When people think of a nurse perhaps they do think of a woman. Some of the details don’t help – the term matron is weird – but it’s about the job, and in my experience men take it in their stride and work with it.”
Davies questions whether it is the work itself that doesn’t attract men, or whether other factors are to blame: “Is it something about people being conditioned at school? Is it suggested by careers officers? It isn’t the best paid job in the world and I think people do look at salary and feel perhaps they want more than that.” And yet once men are working as nurses, Davies says, the role is accepted by the vast majority of people. “I don’t think anybody bats an eyelid anymore,” she says.
At Queen’s University Belfast, a campaign to increase the number of male nursing students that includes targeting all-boys schools – which are more common in Northern Ireland – has prompted a rise from 6% three years ago to 10% today.
Prof Donna Fitzsimons, head of the university’s school of nursing and midwifery, says: “Nursing is all about the empathy and caring that people show, but those traits are not exclusively female and it’s very important for patients that we have diversity on all levels.”
Paediatrics is one field where that’s especially apparent, Fitzsimons says. “Boys, in particular, can find it hard to relate to women at times. Sometimes a male nurse can really bring out a side of a child that helps to lift their mood and allows them to feel more comfortable in a hospital setting.”
The department now tests nurse applicants in five-minute simulated clinical scenarios, as well as interviewing them. “Men seem to have benefited from that exercise,” says Fitzsimons. “Men might find it harder to put into words their caring and compassionate qualities, but can demonstrate them more easily.”
Davies believes that strong role models and encouraging school-age children to think about nursing as a career are key. “It really is a superb job,” she says, “and men are fabulous nurses.”
‘It’s now more recognised that men can do the job in the same way fathers can parent’
I made my mind up that I wanted to be a nurse when I was 14 or 15. My mum’s a care assistant so, subconsciously, that influenced me quite a bit. I did work experience in a school for children with learning disabilities, where a lot of the pupils had epilepsy, and that inspired me too. I knew I wanted to be in a caring profession.
I received a little bit of teasing from my friends, but no one ever questioned why I was doing it. And once I started my training they became more and more interested. That’s always been the case.
I’ve been a nurse most of my working life, so being outnumbered by female colleagues is what I’m used to; I don’t really notice it. Earlier in my career I had a few comments where patients seemed to have expected that the nurse caring for them was going to be a woman, but men were already becoming more commonplace in the profession when I qualified.
Now I’m in a more senior role, patients occasionally assume I’m a doctor if I’m addressing a complaint or helping them with an issue. I correct them, but I don’t challenge them as to why they think that – it wouldn’t be very useful for the caring relationship. And it doesn’t bother me. Occasionally a female patient has preferred to have a female nurse look after her care needs and that’s understandable, especially with elderly patients.
When I was a ward manager, or sister, I did get some people saying: “Shouldn’t you be a brother?” But, actually, no one has ever commented on the fact that I’m a matron and a man. I’ve worked on shifts where it’s been predominantly male nurses, and a lot of the wards I’ve worked on have had a good balance of men and women. It’s now more recognised that men can do the job, in the same way that fathers are getting more involved looking after children.
Once you see a nurse in action giving you excellent care – that’s when the gender disappears.
Dan Wicks, 38, cardiology matron at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS foundation trust
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