Questions about nursing and masculinity persist

Nursing Books
Some of the books used in medical education.

By Gwen Aviles
Medill Reports

Take a second and think of a famous nurse.

Who popped into your mind? Maybe Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton or Mary Breckinridge?

The assumption that nursing is an almost exclusively-female field continues to persist, even as more men have steadily entered the profession since the 1970s. A recent study by Elizabeth Munich and Abigail Wozniak, economists at the University of Louisville and University of Notre Dame, respectively, found that about 13 percent of nurses in the United States were men as of 2015, an increase from 2.2 percent in 1960.

Although nursing is gaining popularity among men, misconceptions regarding nursing and gender remain widespread—especially at DePaul University. Matthew Sorensen, the director of the School of Nursing at DePaul, says prospective male students routinely come to him expressing doubts about enrolling in nursing school.

“There’s still a fear of being a nurse and being male,” says Sorensen. “Prospective students have asked me if people will think less of them or think they are less of a man.”

The reluctance of some male students to study nursing can partially be attributed to a relative lack of male nurses, but also to misrepresentation of nurses’ roles in hospitals in the media.

“Nurses have long been undervalued and misunderstood, especially on TV, where they play secondary characters who are not actively engaged in patients’ recoveries,” says Daniel Mead, a doctoral candidate at DePaul’s School of Nursing.

Mead decided to become a nurse after caring for his sick father, but not before asking his mother—who is also a nurse—whether nursing was “even appropriate for males to go into.”

Despite lingering misconceptions, nursing continues to grow as a field and a viable career option for both males and females. At DePaul, about 16 percent of nursing students are male, a number DePaul nursing professor Linda Graf believes is sure to grow.

“Nursing is more respected since I began in the 1970s,” she says. “To be a nurse today, you need a more specialized degree, and this formalized education is bringing in qualified people from both genders.”

Photo at top: Some of the books used in medical education. (Gwen Aviles/MEDILL)