Male nurses defy stereotypes and discrimination to find satisfaction in a female-dominated profession
By Lisette Hilton
Mark Buike, RN, feels at ease and confident as a male nurse. Buike, a Nurse II in the pediatrics ICU at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, said that any door he has wanted to walk through has been open to him.
"In nursing school, even though it was 1980 and I initially went to a Catholic diploma school, they made every service open. I’ve worked in newborn ICU, pediatric ICU, adult ER, cardiovascular ICU. I’ve never felt that I was not allowed to go to any particular area. I’ve been to delivery C-sections and ob/gyn emergencies in the ER. I’ve never felt stymied," he said.
The perception that men are stymied in nursing today is overblown, said Vern Bullough, Ph.D., RN, adjunct professor of nursing at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and a distinguished professor emeritus at State University of New York.
"Some hospitals, for a while, tried to keep men out of ob/gyn floors and women’s health wards. But generally, that has not happened in recent years. There is still some difficulty for men to become nurse-midwives, but even that has broken down," Bullough said. "Some women deliberately discriminate against male nurses, but this is a small minority of people. I’ve had tremendous support from female nurses," said Bullough, a recipient of the American Assembly for Men in Nursing’s (AAMN) Distinguished Nurse award, who has been a nurse, educator and author of more than 100 books and articles about nursing.
But while the discriminatory practices against men in nursing might be easing, male nurses continue to tell stories about unfair treatment.
Workplace prejudiceSylva Emodi, Ph.D., MSN, MPH, was so distraught over the discrimination he experienced in 1996 teaching a rotation in labor and delivery at a California hospital that he left maternal and child care.
Born in Nigeria and educated in the United States, Emodi spent two years at a California university as an associate professor in the department of nursing. The environment was hostile, he said.
"I remember going to a rotation at a local hospital. The head nurse made it difficult for me to be able to supervise students in labor and delivery, pediatrics and postpartum, I think, because I’m a guy. She’d say, ‘You are not a medical doctor, you cannot go into labor and delivery.’ After a while, I had had enough, so I went to the doctor directly and said, ‘I need to be here with the students. The students need to see what is going on.’ The doctor said, ‘Sure, help yourself. Come on in.’ "
The head nurse eventually apologized for her behavior, but the hostility continued in other areas, Emodi said, even during his interactions with other faculty members. Emodi left the university and the hospital. He’s now supervisor of the psychiatric unit at the Palo Alto VA Health System in California. Despite the hurdles, Emodi said he’s happy he chose nursing as a career.
Terry Miller, Ph.D., RN, dean and professor in the School of Nursing at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., and a professor emeritus at San Jose (Calif.) State University, has experienced and witnessed discrimination against male nurses throughout his career.
In the early ’70s, as an undergraduate student at a clinical rotation in the OR at Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City, Miller wore his hair long. "It was characteristic of the era," he said.
The shift supervisor for OR services, a Mercy nun, would make Miller leave the OR every couple of hours to rescrub. A surgeon noticed the abuse, reprimanded her for her behavior and, according to Miller, said to the nun, "I don’t know what your problem is with him. I don’t like long hair either. But I’m telling you right now it’s unconscionable the way you’re riding him."
The nun later admitted that she didn’t like men in nursing. According to Miller, she said, "I don’t like long hairs. And when you put them [men and long hairs] together, they just make me sick."
Buike didn’t like the lack of assertiveness of Ben Stiller’s character (who works as a male nurse) in the movie "Meet the Parents." Stiller’s character, whose future father-in-law criticizes him incessantly for being a nurse, submits to the insults to gain favor with his girlfriend’s family.
Buike said he would have spoken up much sooner. "I would have said, ‘We have to have a talk. We have to come to an understanding of what I do is not who I am. Nursing is a profession. It does not equate to any particular sexuality or sexual leaning."
"Talk to male nurses and you’ll find that while they love the profession, they haven’t enjoyed being treated like women," said Bruce Wilson, Ph.D., RN, associate professor at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg.
Wilson began his career in nursing in 1964 and served in the Vietnam War. "We encounter a lot of hostility from female nurses. Because nursing as a profession is confused about whether it’s a profession or it’s a gender," he said.
Wilson, who serves on AAMN’s board of directors, said that nursing is behind the times when it comes to recruiting from all walks of life.
"Every other profession has changed except nursing. We’re suffering from a teachers’ shortage. If you look at the advertisements for teachers, they feature minorities. They feature men. It’s not presented as a gender," Wilson said. "If you look at what nursing presents itself as, it presents itself as a gender. We’re women. In fact, we’re Caucasian women."
Better times ahead?Carol Avery, Ed.D., RN, associate professor of nursing at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury and vice president of the AAMN, said that she sees positive change occurring in the younger generations of nurses.
She believes women are growing more amenable to men in nursing. "I especially notice it at Western Connecticut State University; the students with their male colleagues see each other as just nurses," Avery said.
To better understand the plight of her male colleagues and students, Karen Morin, DSN, RN, professor of nursing and professor in charge of graduate nursing programs at the Pennsylvania State University in University Park, joined the AAMN board. The membership, she said, made her realize subtle discriminations and biases that women, including nurses, physicians and patients, interject.
Nursing faculty needs to be aware of potential problems, especially when patients might feel uncomfortable about having a male nurse, Morin said.
"You’re not condoning this behavior, but on the other hand you don’t want to create any additional stress on the patient. Certainly, we have a responsibility to inform them [patients] that there is no difference," she said. "As a childbirth educator, it would be incumbent upon me to tell my childbirth couple, ‘Hey, there are both genders in nursing. So don’t be surprised if a male nurse walks into your unit.’ "
Despite arguments, the literature supports that male nurses can be just as caring as their female counterparts.
Susan Boughn, Ed.D., MSN, RN, a nursing professor at The College of New Jersey School of Nursing, in Ewing, researched why men and women choose nursing in a study published in the January/February issue of Nursing and Health Care Perspectives. During interviews with 12 male students and 16 female students, she found that the male nurses were eager to talk about their feelings about nursing.
Men do careBoughn said that she now recognizes that male nurses have a "strong call to care. It’s very strong. It’s as strong, I think, as the female nursing students’ need to care," she said. "I liked and was encouraged that they felt no hesitation or shame about saying right up front, ‘I expect and deserve to get a good salary and good working conditions.’ I thought that was healthy. The women nursing students were much more hesitant to say that."
Both men and women were interested in power and empowerment within nursing, Boughn also found. The variable was that while female nurses were interested in power for themselves and their patients, males were interested in not only self- and patient empowerment but also empowerment of the nursing profession.
"If we had all nursing students concerned up front about their basic human labor rights and empowering not only themselves and their patients but also the profession, that’s a good place for students to be. I think if we had a long history of that, we would not be where we are today with the nursing shortage," Boughn said.
The Health Resources and Service Administration’s National Sample Survey of 2000 says that of the estimated 2,696,540 registered nurses in the United States, 5.9 percent are male. About 6 percent of nurses today are male. That’s the highest percentage since the 1900s.
"The men who go into nursing have to realize that it’s a profession dominated by women, so if they don’t get along with women well, it’s not a good profession for them. A lot of men in the past have not been able to deal with situations in which women are supervisors over them," Bullough said.
"The thing to focus on in men and in nursing is that men and women are both nurses. There is not much basic difference between them. Men are sometimes stronger than women, and in the past they often got stuck with turning patients more. I think all you do is treat both men and women equally."
Male nurses can overcome negative perceptions by addressing them, Miller said. By encountering gender-based reservations and winning patients’ and nurses’ confidence despite their initial unease, you win friends for life, he said.
"That’s happened to me a few times and what a joy that is for both of us. It has been a wonderful career; it still is. The more important thing is nursing itself; I’ve never been bored as a nurse. I’ve always had mobility. I’ve always had lots of opportunities. I’ve never been burned out because I wasn’t learning. I don’t know that many professions have all the dimensions of nursing," he said.