In the 2000 hit comedy “Meet the Parents,” Ben Stiller plays a suitor who can do no right in the eyes of his future in-laws. The punch line for many of the jokes is his occupation: He’s a male nurse.

The movie may have left audiences laughing, but not Michael Desjardins, RN. As the first male president of the National Student Nurses’ Association (NSNA), he knows only too well that the fictional jokes are reality for men who have chosen nursing as a career. “After all of the chaos [Stiller’s character causes], the one thing the father can’t forgive is that he’s a male nurse,” he complains. “I don’t see that as funny.”

Desjardins confronts stereotypes about male nurses practically every day. People act surprised when they learn his occupation. Friends have told him to wear his wedding ring to work so people won’t assume he’s gay. Even though he’s only been an RN for a year, he’s already concerned about the effects his gender may have on his career path.

These long-standing perceptions that nursing is strictly a “women only” profession have for years deterred men from entering the field. While nursing has finally started to make moderate inroads in increasing its ethnic diversity, the RN workforce still remains 95% female, according to the most recent National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses. Based purely on the numbers, male nurses are a distinct minority in the profession, regardless of their race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

But today’s critical nursing shortage might just be the catalyst to change that statistic. Recognizing that they can no longer afford to ignore 50% of the population, nursing schools, health care facilities, nursing associations and government agencies are all developing aggressive recruiting strategies to close this gender gap and persuade more males to consider nursing as a viable—and masculine—career.

“Nursing no longer has the luxury of accepting only females,” explains Gene Tranbarger, RN, EdD, CNAA, a professor of nursing at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., and president of the American Assembly for Men in Nursing (http://aamn.org), an advocacy group with 500 members. “We need to find and encourage people who have the ability and qualifications to become good nurses, regardless of whether they are male or female, straight or gay, white or people of color. Today, those differences are irrelevant.”

Making Nursing Schools More Co-Ed

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), nursing schools are spearheading the national campaign to increase gender diversity in the profession. To cite just one example, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston convened a forum of male nurses to develop a plan for attracting more men to its nursing program. As the result, the number of male students at UT-Houston’s School of Nursing has increased to nearly 30% of the student population, thanks to the use of innovative strategies such as redesigning recruitment materials to make them less “feminine” and more appealing to men.

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But many experts feel that simply getting more male bodies into classroom seats is not enough. Nursing programs, they argue, must also make significant changes in their curricula and teaching styles to create a more positive and nondiscriminatory learning environment for nursing students who happen to be men.

Tranbarger recalls receiving rejection letters from schools based solely on his gender when he first started his nursing journey in the 1950s. Today, he thinks the discrimination is still present, although it’s much more subtle. “All nursing schools now accept men,” he maintains, “but I’m not sure that all schools welcome them.”

Tranbarger points to professors who still habitually begin class lectures with “Good morning, ladies” and textbooks almost exclusively written by women for women as examples of ways nursing educators fail to acknowledge the needs of male students.
Jim Richmann, RN, BS, CEN, coordinator of patient care services for the emergency department at Underwood Memorial Hospital in Woodbridge, N.J., feels educational opportunities for men who want to become nurses have changed for the better over the past 30 years. But still, he says, societal attitudes about male nursing students have been slow to change.

“When I told my guidance counselor I was interested in nursing, he said, ‘What do you mean? Can’t you afford medical school?’” Richmann remembers. “If you were a male going into nursing, the stereotypes were either that you weren’t smart enough to get into med school or you were gay.”

AACN President Carolyn Williams, RN, PhD, FAAN, dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Nursing in Lexington, says nursing schools are trying to make their programs more welcoming to male students, but the task isn’t always easy. Many schools are having trouble finding male faculty who can serve as role models and mentors, she reports. UK currently has two full-time male professors and hopes to persuade a third part-time professor to accept a full-time position.

Leo-Felix Jurado, RN, MA, CNA, APN, BC, associate professor and assistant chairperson of the Department of Nursing & Allied Health at the County College of Morris in New Jersey, says he’s often the first male nurse his students see. He feels the lack of strong male role models in all levels and fields of nursing is a barrier that is blocking men’s entry into the field.

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“Men in nursing face the same situation as women have faced in getting into male-dominated professions,” Jurado comments. “Seeing a female CEO motivates other women to pursue business careers, and seeing a male nurse motivates more men to consider nursing. My [male] students are happy to have a male instructor because they see me as someone they will be comfortable talking with, someone who can understand how it feels to be a male nurse.”

Boys II Men II Nurses

The sooner a boy or young man realizes he can be a nurse, the greater the odds are that he will seriously consider nursing as a career choice. For young people in the Omaha area, the idea of a male nurse is no surprise, thanks to the efforts of Art Baux, a senior in the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Nursing (www.unmc.edu/nursing).

Baux became the unofficial mascot for UNMC’s nursing program when he signed up to assist the college’s nursing recruiter, Dani Eveloff. His face has greeted visitors to the school’s Web site and he has spoken about careers in nursing to preschoolers and high school students. His message, Baux says, is that “it’s okay to be a man in nursing.”

UNMC is another example of a nursing school that has achieved encouraging results by implementing recruitment efforts targeted specifically to male students. Between 1999 and 2001, the number of male applicants to the program increased by 54% and the number of males actually admitted rose by an impressive 77%.

In addition to creating more male-friendly recruiting materials, UNMC has used strategies like holding an open house to subtly sell male youths on the idea of going to nursing school. “One of the most effective things we did was to make our open house a family event,” Eveloff says. “We wanted to get both husbands and wives to attend. We had an exploratorium with fun things for kids and then the parents could talk about careers in nursing.”

Since the school had a limited promotional budget, the recruiting staff focused on securing free ads in high-visibility places where people of all ages—not just high school and college students–would be likely to see them. The open house was advertised on a marquee at Omaha’s busiest intersection. Minority newspapers and cable stations ran free promos.

When the school did pay for a newspaper ad, Eveloff made sure it was placed in a gender-neutral part of the paper, rather than in the female-oriented lifestyle section. “People don’t always read the whole paper, but most people check the movie listings,” she points out. As luck would have it, the ad appeared directly above an ad for that weekend’s big action flick.

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Opening Closed Doors

It’s one thing to attract men to the nursing profession but another thing to keep them there. When male nursing students begin to transition into the professional RN workforce, they often encounter enough discrimination to make them seriously reconsider their choice of careers. Here, too, experts says, traditional ways of thinking will need to change radically before gender diversity in nursing can truly become a reality.

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Even while doors of opportunity for women have swung open throughout the medical profession, male nurses still find that many doors are closed to them in the clinical setting, especially when female patients are involved. “In some clinical education programs, hospitals have a difficult time finding a place for male nursing students in women’s health areas,” Jurado explains. “It’s common to hear things like, ‘He really doesn’t belong here. I’ll find an alternative assignment for him.’”

This prejudice isn’t just limited to labor and delivery rooms, he adds. Often, male nurses must be accompanied by female “chaperones” even when doing simple abdominal examinations–an exclusionary practice in light of the fact that no such restrictions are placed on female nurses who care for male patients.

Other men in nursing agree that male and female RNs are not treated equally in the workplace. For example, male nurses often find that their female colleagues automatically expect them to handle unruly or heavy patients. “If someone has to be lifted, the male nurse will be the one called,” Tranbarger says, adding that male nurses are often so busy doing the unit’s heavy work that they fall behind in their own patient care.

Tranbarger is currently studying the recruitment and retention of male nurses at hospitals near East Carolina University. His findings suggest that while many male RNs are feeling the effects of negative stereotyping in the workplace, their number one complaint is gender politics.

“I think at the staff level, most men would tell you they are generally welcomed by their [female] colleagues, but problems come in instances,” he says. “There’s an underlying tension between the overwhelming number of women in nursing and the much smaller number of men trying to find a place within that group. Gender-related management issues are a common problem. Some men have trouble accepting a female authority figure and some females have trouble managing men.”

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Adds Desjardins, who works at the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute in Salt Lake City, “Sometimes it does get lonely [when you’re a man in nursing]. You feel like you’re not part of the sisterhood.”

Give a Guy a Break

Desjardins’ election to lead the country’s largest student nursing association may have surprised many, but he says gender was not a factor. He won by a slim margin of 38 votes out of a total of 500 cast.

While Transbarger cites Desjardins’ presidency as a step forward, he feels that many nursing organizations still aren’t sure what to do with male members. He’s attended national conventions where he felt less than welcomed. “Sometimes one of the first orders of business is to declare all of the bathrooms in the building as female,” he says. “I’ve had to go to the next building to find a bathroom.”

Desjardins, too, is frustrated at the slow pace of change. “Everybody talks about bringing more men into nursing, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing anything about it,” he declares. “In many cases, it takes a backseat to recruiting other minorities.”

One strategy that has helped diversify the face of nursing is the establishment of scholarships and other financial assistance programs targeted to racial and ethnic minorities. While minority scholarships have created more opportunities for men of color to earn nursing degrees, their definition of “minorities” rarely includes Caucasian males.

Desjardins says he doesn’t think there is a need for scholarships that target white men, since this population is statistically not disadvantaged in society. He does feel, however, that financial support from health care employers could help more male nursing technicians and men in other health care specialties make the transition to nursing.

“Employers need to step up to bat,” he says. “Pay for school in exchange for a couple of years of service.” The investment will pay off, he adds, because employers and the patients they serve will ultimately reap the rewards of a more diversified nursing workforce.

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