Solving the gender imbalance in nursing could be an important missing piece to improve the quality of patient care and accelerate the profession in reaching its full potential.
The contributions of women and men in nursing, the nation’s largest profession with 3.9 million people holding active RN licenses, have been critical to the improvement in national and global health and life expectancy over the past century. The issue of gender diversity in nursing today is a next step forward in the progress of health and well-being, affirming that in health care and everywhere else, diversity is a driver of quality.
The nursing gender gap reveals a persistent form of bias that limits perspectives and creates obstacles to quality patient care. Health care will gain more by recruiting, developing and supporting men in nursing because the result will be a health care profession that authentically represents the patient population itself.
To begin, if any population group is underrepresented in any profession, for whatever reasons, you won’t get the best possible job candidates to choose from, so you won’t be able to hire or promote the best talent. Ensuring the largest possible talent pool is essential to quality. The fact that only 13 percent of nurses are male indicates there are many potentially excellent nurses who are not entering the profession.
With consumer demand for health care services projected to far outweigh the supply of nurses, there are other important reasons why the profession needs to increase the number of male nurses. As part of a long-range solution to the nursing shortage, greater numbers of men pursuing careers in nursing could provide some relief.
An influx of male applicants could help create pressure to expand nursing programs. And if nursing becomes more diverse, it could become a greater force for social and public policy change, including greater investment in educating more nurses.
Though genders share many physical and behavioral conditions, they also experience gender-specific diseases, injuries, symptoms and health determinants. And the gender of practitioners makes a difference in diagnoses and treatment.
Research shows, for example, that female heart attack patients experienced better outcomes in emergency departments that had a higher percentage of female physicians, and that male physicians are more effective in treating female heart attack patients when they work with more female colleagues and treat more female patients. It’s clear that better gender equity and experience among practitioners has a beneficial effect on patient outcomes.
On a larger scale, the health of populations could be improved if nurses, the occupation with the largest scale of hands-on patient care, better represent the people they serve. Care quality is dependent on the relationship between practitioner and patient; practitioner characteristics that match patient populations could be key to more effective treatment and successful outcomes.
More men in nursing can also help explode some of the unfortunate myths that surround nursing. Nurses are scientists as well as caregivers; as a scientific profession, all genders have equal ability to excel in nursing.
There is no gender predisposition to the profession. More male nurses would help shift the focus on the nursing profession to a balanced view of science and caring.
False stereotypes about nursing begin with the misleading beliefs that women are more nurturing than men and that the most important aspect of nursing is to comfort people. These two misrepresentations continually reinforce each other. In searching for a reason why nursing is predominantly female, people fall back on the myth that women are more nurturing.
The gender, nurturing and “soft science” myths about nursing are long-standing and deeply rooted. Increasing the percentage of male nurses would help change them.
There may be real risks for women in increasing the percentage of male nurses, because of the “glass ceiling” for women and “glass escalator” for men that exist in organizations. It’s important to be aware that if nursing moves toward gender neutrality, it could increase the likelihood for a ceiling that prevents the advancement of women into leadership and an escalator that advances men faster than women. That’s why we need leadership training for nurses, removing workplace discrimination based on child-bearing status, creating workplaces with flexibility for child care, and increasing educational opportunities.
Increasing the number of male nurses has the potential to unravel many myths about nursing. But more importantly, society needs more male nurses, along with other increases in diversity in the profession, so that it will mirror the patient populations and potentially improve the quality of care and outcomes.
Cole Edmonson, DNP, RN, FACHE, NEA-BC, FAONL, FAAN, is chief clinical officer for AMN Healthcare, and Paulette Anest, MSN, RN, is vice president of clinical operations for AMN Healthcare.
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