Time to Welcome Men into Nursing

December 2012Austin Nation

I’ve been a registered nurse for over 30 years. In that time, the percentage of men in the profession has more than doubled nationally, from 3 percent to almost 7 percent. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), men now account for more than 11 percent of students enrolled in baccalaureate nursing programs; the American Assembly for Men in Nursing (AAMN) hopes that by 2020, there will be 20 percent male enrollment in nursing programs throughout the United States. But as more men find nursing to be a satisfying career option, they should be aware that many challenges remain.

Those challenges begin in nursing programs, which can come as a bit of culture shock because men sometimes face attitudes and treatment historically shown to women and minority groups. Faculty – often older, white women – can be less than welcoming and refer to nurses as “her” and “she.” This parallels the type of insensitive language that many feminists have found offensive in traditionally male-dominated professions.

Another painful experience male students experience is when clinical nursing faculty members, perhaps unintentionally, stigmatize male nursing students. They ask patients – usually female patients – if they are okay having a male student work with them. They deny men the same clinical experiences and assignments as their female counterparts, particularly in areas like labor and delivery. This makes no sense when male physicians are often treating the very same patients.

Thirty years ago I had a nursing instructor who made sure I experienced everything I could in every clinical area – including attending to a patient during childbirth. That was one of the most powerful, life-changing patient interactions in my entire nursing career – and it led to my belief that all nursing students should be educated equally on cultural competence and be able to provide care to any patient.

Even at a school and medical center as progressive as UCSF, some of these painful attitudes remain. As an African American male, I have been involved in a couple of discussions on this topic within the School of Nursing and as part of the chancellor’s diversity initiatives. And for me, the question always returns to: What can we do to welcome all students to the nursing profession, especially since they have already gone through an extensive admission process and been selected from a pool of thousands of other applicants?

At UCSF School of Nursing, the answer begins with the work of the DiVersity in Action (DIVA) Committee, a group of faculty members whose mission is to create a climate in which everyone feels welcome and can participate and learn. Many of these people have been pioneers and work tirelessly to create a more inclusive environment, but it is no easy task to drive change when attitudes are so deeply ingrained. Perhaps time is the solution. We increase awareness of the issues, welcome in a new generation of faculty and follow up more aggressively on student feedback and evaluations; that is how change can occur.

It is also encouraging to be at a School of Nursing led by a man: Dean David Vlahov. Most schools of nursing have been under the direction of women, and frankly, some nurses and nursing programs still seem to believe that nursing is a calling that can and should only be fulfilled by other women. Dean Vlahov is an active participant and supporter of men in nursing, and knowing he is the dean has been a source of great comfort for me this past year. Throughout my career, academic and clinical nursing environments have typically lacked adequate numbers of minority or male faculty who might be able to serve as mentors and role models. Part of my decision to return to school is the hope that I can someday play such a role – and that many others will decide to join me.

That is not to say that women can’t be effective role models as well. I remain grateful to all the powerful women in nursing who have inspired, touched and nurtured my career. I am honored to work alongside women who take a stand and champion the issues faced by minorities and men in nursing. I applaud your love and courage, hoping that one day, regardless of race or gender, the word “nurse” will apply equally to anyone with a heart up to the task of caring for another human being.

Austin Nation is a second-year doctoral student whose goal is to become a faculty member and nurse scientist with a focus on HIV/AIDS prevention in at-risk minority communities. He has a master's in Nursing Leadership with an emphasis on education at CSU Fullerton, and is a past CSU Sally Casanova Predoctoral Scholar, recipient of the William Randolph Hearst Award/CSU Trustees’ Award, International Understanding Award, and the Graduate Assistant in Areas of National Need (GAANN) Clinical Teaching and Research Scholar Fellow. He completed summer research internships at Yale University and Duke University, is founder/president of the Men in Nursing at UCSF and a member of the UCSF Nursing Alumni Association.