Increasingly, men are pursuing careers in nursing, attracted by the same benefits that have traditionally drawn women to the profession: abundant job opportunities, good salaries and, above all, the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.

Even though men account for 50% of the population, only about 7.9% of registered nurses in the U.S. are male (up from 5.8% in 2004). That’s a smaller percentage than in other developed countries, such as 10% in the United Kingdom, 18% in Germany and 23% in the Netherlands. But those numbers are beginning to rise as nursing schools around the country keep reaching out to recruit more male students into their programs. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, as of December 2008 the percentage of men enrolled in baccalaureate and master’s degree nursing programs was 10.4% and 8.9%, respectively.

In previous generations, most men who made the pioneering decision to go to nursing school had to overcome significant barriers, such as gender discrimination from female instructors and students, unequal access to clinical training in areas like obstetrics and gynecology, and lack of support from family and friends who perceived nursing as strictly a women’s career. But what is it like to be a gender minority nursing student in the 21st century? Do today’s men in nursing school still face these same challenges? If so, how are they dealing with them? And do male students of color feel that being both a racial/ethnic and gender minority puts them at a double disadvantage compared to other nursing students?

Here’s what seven current or recently graduated male students have to say about their experiences in a female-dominated educational environment—including their man-to-man advice for other guys in nursing school and their recommendations for how nursing programs and instructors can maximize their male students’ chances for success.

Stuart Davidson

Senior, BSN Program
University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing (Philadelphia, Pa.)

Both of Stuart Davidson’s parents work in health care—his mom is a nurse anesthetist and his dad is a health care administrator—so nursing was a natural career choice for him. “Nursing is a good route to get into health care quickly,” he explains. “I wanted to get immersed in the field early to make sure it was indeed what I wanted to do.”

The choice hasn’t come without challenges. And as president of the Male Association of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania (MAN-UP), Davidson has heard his share of similar stories from other male students on campus. “[Men] who tell you they haven’t faced challenges [in nursing school] are either ignoring it or choose not to [talk about it],” he says.

Some of the barriers male nursing students face as gender minorities are subtle, such as the pressure put on them by some female instructors who are skeptical of male students, Davidson notes. “[Some of them] will give men a harder time—challenge us because they think we shouldn’t be there.” Other roadblocks are more obvious, like encountering female patients in obstetrics clinicals who don’t want to be examined by a male student.

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Davidson’s advice for other men in nursing school is simple: Be positive and have a strong support network. “Attitude makes all the difference,” he emphasizes. “I’ve embraced my role as a male in a predominately female profession.”

Joining a support group like MAN-UP can also be an important success strategy, he adds. It helps to have someone to talk to—especially other male students who are going through the same thing. But Davidson also knows men “who have all females in their support structure.”

Seeking out a supportive faculty member, preferably male, can be helpful too, Davidson says. “Otherwise, it’s easy to be passive—one of five guys who sit in the back of the room and don’t speak up. You need someone to encourage you to speak out, to hash out your goals and find your niche.”

In addition to sponsoring social events to give members an opportunity to connect with other male students informally, MAN-UP also invites practicing male nurses to speak to the group about their specialties. “They’re good role models,” Davidson says. “Some guys [in the group] have matched up with speakers for mentorship.”

Spencer Stubbs

Freshman, BSN Program
University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing (Philadelphia, Pa.)

Like most first-year students entering the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, Spencer Stubbs’ greatest challenge is getting the hardcore science classes out of the way and preparing for clinicals. But as an African American male, he also deals with the stress of being both a racial and gender minority in the classroom.

“I’m one of only 18 males [in my cohort],” he says. “[Some female] instructors make little comments like, ‘for you nurses—and you males who are preparing for pre-med…’ They think that we males are in here only because of the bad economy.”

Penn offers a dual-degree program in nursing and health care management that attracts many male students. “But some, like me, do want to work in a clinical setting, not management,” says Stubbs.

Although he initially feared experiencing both sexism and racism in nursing school, so far the latter hasn’t been a problem for him. “I haven’t encountered [racism from professors or classmates—at least not yet],” he reports. Still, he can’t help noticing that “I am the only African American male in my nursing class. It’s a little sad that even today, in the class of 2013, there’s only one.”

Stubbs has a peer advisor and a nursing instructor who are both African American men. These two role models have eased his prime anxiety about starting nursing school: Will there be people like me? They’ve also given him several pieces of valuable advice: Step back before a bad situation escalates. Don’t lose your cool. Let ignorant comments pass. Reach out to others. “At the end of the day, you have to make sure you attain your goal,” Stubbs says.

He has also gained support and guidance from several student groups on campus, including MAN-UP, Minorities in Nursing Organization (MNO) and the Black Students League.

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Stubbs was urged to consider a nursing career by his physician sister, Aisha. “I chose nursing because, as they say, ‘doctors focus on treating diseases and nurses on treating people.’ I definitely want the patient interaction.”

Ashley Vasnaik

Junior, BSN Program
University of Portland School of Nursing (Portland, Ore.)

“Some people give me looks like, ‘what are you doing here?’ I don’t know if it’s because I’m a male, or I’m not Caucasian, or what,” says Ashley Vasnaik, a nursing student of East Indian ancestry.

One of seven men in a cohort of 145 students, Vasnaik hasn’t encountered gender bias directly, but he’s heard stories from other male students who have. It usually comes from female instructors, he says. “Their attitude is ‘what do you think you’re doing here? Go back to engineering or business, where a man belongs.’ They think that nursing is a woman’s field and that care needs to be given from a female point of view. Sometimes there’s an assumption that any male who enters pediatrics or labor and delivery has an ulterior motive.”

Vasnaik’s support network includes his family—his mother and sister are nurses—and classmates, both male and female. He advises other men in nursing school to befriend women students, too. “[Female students] come up and introduce themselves to me all the time,” he says. “As one of the few males in the program, I stand out.”

As for man-to-man networking, Vasnaik adds, some male students belong to a Facebook group called M.U.R.S.E. (Males United to Redefine Society’s Expectations [of Male Nurses]. The word “murse” is also a combination of “male” and “nurse.”) And on campus, “we kind of mentor each other,” he says. “Younger guys will stop me in the hall and we’ll talk for 10 to 15 minutes. They might say, ‘I’m worried about my anatomy exam,’ and I’ll give them my best advice.”

Vasnaik believes that persistence and a positive attitude are the keys to success. “Don’t think ‘I’m going into a difficult profession and will have problems [because of my gender],’” he advises. “Instead think, ‘I have my study habits down and my coping mechanisms in place.’”

Paul Dominguez

Senior, BSN Program
University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Nursing (Houston, Texas)

The biggest barrier for Paul Dominguez, a Hispanic BSN student, was adjusting to taking classes on a major university campus. “I had a tough time the first semester,” he recalls. “But the school is really accommodating, and things started to click.” He did so well, in fact, that he is scheduled to graduate in January 2010—from a class that comprises about 10% men.

Dominguez was encouraged by his mother, an LPN for 30 years, to transfer from business administration to a nursing major. He initially felt hesitant in the nursing program. “[Being accountable for] people’s health and safety was an enormous responsibility,” he says. “But it was OK once I gained some confidence and got over my self-doubt from being new to the medical field.”

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While some male nursing students of color might view their status as a double disadvantage, Dominguez does not. “Here in Houston, it’s a double plus,” he explains. “The county hospital I’m interested in working for is looking for Hispanic nurses who speak Spanish. And male nurses are always in demand.”

He aspires to become an emergency room nurse after he graduates. Ever since he saw a male Hispanic nurse working in the ER during rotations, “that’s been my role model.”

For the most part, Dominguez says, people today are more accepting of male nurses. Still, he did experience some occasions in clinicals where “some patients [were] hesitant [about having] a male nurse, especially female patients, because they aren’t used to it. It’s unusual.” But his friends, family and classmates have been supportive. And the environment at the school has been male-friendly, with posters of men as nurses hanging in the hallways.

“The only class that we male students had trouble with was OB, because guys don’t have [the first-hand] experience with female physiology and babies [that women do],” he adds.

Dominguez does have one piece of advice for female nursing professors: Be sensitive to the uniquely male communication style. “Guys really just want to know how something is working, how to fix it and then get on to the next thing,” he says. “We don’t want fluff. We’re not interested in hand-holding.”

Dennis Niekro

Graduate Entry MSN Program
Ohio State University College of Nursing (Columbus, Ohio)

Dennis Niekro, a student who is making a career change into nursing, is enrolled in a master’s entry graduate program for people who have completed a bachelor’s degree in a major other than nursing. (His undergraduate degree is in psychology.)  He previously worked for 15 years in education, medical research and at a hospice. Now he is pursuing an MSN in the adult nurse practitioner program.

Niekro says he hasn’t encountered any gender bias problems in nursing school. “Maybe I’m in a unique place, but I haven’t experienced difficulties. No issues at all. There’s a diverse population at OSU and the environment at the university is one of tolerance. The College of Nursing has also done a tremendous job of recruiting male students.”

According to Niekro, 17% of the 58 students who started in his cohort in fall 2008 were male. The percentage of men in the 2009 cohort was almost 19%. “In all [clinical] areas, the male students have been well received,” he adds. “Our OB clinical instructor was especially sensitive [to our needs].”

Niekro’s friends and family members have also been very supportive, viewing his choice to enter nursing as a natural and logical career progression. “My parents have not been vocal [about it] with their friends,” he admits. “[They’re not] boasting ‘my son has gone back to school to be a nurse practitioner!’ But that just speaks to the older generation’s view of nursing.”

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For Niekro, being a gender minority in nursing school has been a learning experience in itself. “It’s interesting, as a man, to immerse myself in a profession that has been dominated by women,” he comments.

He sees the recruitment and retention of men in nursing school as a system-wide issue. “Schools should try to recruit more men into clinical faculty positions,” Niekro says. “It is important to have more of a gender balance in nursing leadership positions [on campus]. That helps to normalize things a bit for [male students] who may have their own internalized issues.”

He recognizes that the nursing faculty shortage and the low representation of men in nursing make it extremely challenging for many schools to recruit male instructors. But he’s seeing some encouraging trends. “Here at Ohio State,” he says, “a grad student who recently completed his PhD in nursing assumed the role of interim director of the women’s health and nurse midwifery programs.”

Steve Wooden, CRNA

Doctoral student, DNP Program
Duke University School of Nursing (Durham, N.C.)

Steve Wooden, an advanced practice nurse specializing as a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA), has been working in the nursing profession for 30 years. He is now continuing his education by pursuing a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree in nurse anesthesia at Duke University School of Nursing, where he says his gender is not an issue. But back in 1979, when he first graduated from nursing school with his BSN degree, he was the only man in a class of 80 students.

“Maybe I was naive, but I didn’t consider it a problem,” he recalls.

Although Wooden had no trouble being accepted by his undergraduate instructors and fellow students, some of the physicians and administrators objected to his presence. “Their attitude was that because I was a man and in nursing school, there was something wrong with me,” he says. Having the support of classmates and professors helped him cope, as did “my ambition to be the best nursing student I could be.”

What advice does he have for how nursing schools can ensure that male students have an equal opportunity to succeed? “Establish non-discriminatory guidelines for both male and female students,” Wooden recommends. “My biggest experience of bias [in my undergraduate program] was when male physicians asked that I not be allowed into certain clinical areas [such as obstetrics].”

Fortunately, he says, some of the doctors he had to work with were more tolerant than others. For example, in one of his clinicals he was able to successfully assist a physician at a shopping mall breast exam clinic, because the patients were first asked if they were comfortable having a male nurse.

Wooden notes that some of the gender-based challenges he faced 30 years ago continue to be an issue for male nursing students today, such as avoiding any perception of inappropriate touching with female patients or classmates. “When we took turns being clinical models, for instance, I made sure everyone was comfortable with that,” he says. “But if a female classmate was not comfortable with the idea of being examined by a male student, I took it as matter of [her personal] feelings, not overt discrimination. I didn’t let it bother me. Most of the students were mature and understood the context.”

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Lopsang Sakya, RN

2008 graduate, ADN Program
Portland Community College (Portland, Ore.)

When Lopsang Sakya became a registered nurse a year ago, it marked the pinnacle of an 11-year journey. Sakya, who is of Nepalese and Tibetan ethnicity, immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 and worked a series of grueling jobs in New York City.

“I worked 12 hours a day, six days a week for $250 a week,” he says. “For four years I did bike delivery , riding as fast as I could to deliver food hot. It was the hardest job I ever had.” But tips doubled his earnings and he was able to save almost his entire pay by sleeping on a cot at his employer’s premises.

Sakya’s oldest sister was studying nursing in Oregon, and she encouraged him to do the same. The job security and the salary appealed to him. Still, his decision to become the first man within Portland’s small Tibetan community to enter nursing brought him up against some cultural barriers. “In my [native] country, most people think nursing is only for women,” he explains. “They make fun of men [who want to be nurses]—‘That’s a woman’s job!’”

As a student nurse at Portland Community College, he initially felt awkward as one of only two Asians in the class, and the only Asian man. “I felt a little different from everyone else in the beginning, but I acted [like all the other students] and it was fine.”

Even though he was one of only five men in a class of 40 nursing students, Sakya doesn’t remember ever being singled out because of his gender—or rather, he didn’t at first. Prompted a little further, he recalls, “oh, yeah, obstetrics. A lot of women [patients] didn’t want a male nurse, but I didn’t want to [work in] obstetrics anyway, so that didn’t bother me.”

Today Sakya is a medical-surgical nurse at Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center in Gresham, Oregon. Although he is the only Asian male nurse in a staff of approximately 130 on his floor, three of his fellow nurses are Asian and six are men. And he gets along well with both co-workers and patients.

“Work is fabulous; everyone is just great,” he reports. “The patients are curious [about my background]. They’ll ask me ‘where are you from?’ and ‘how long have you been here?’ When I tell them, they always say, ‘oh, that’s nice. You came to the United States to go to school, and you’ve stayed to help people.”’

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