Nursing ‘as a man’

Should we aim to encourage more Men into Nursing to solve the staffing crisis?

William P Ball


June 24, 2020

Only around 10% of Nurses in the UK are male. Campaigns are attempting to encourage more male applicants to Nursing degrees, but is that the best solution to the staffing crisis?

My very first placement as a student Nurse took place on a busy Acute Admissions Unit at a large central London hospital. After a few weeks I had begun to settle in and had developed some relationships with my colleagues. One day in the middle of a short spell on nice weather the ward was unusually quiet. Some of the team were sat completing paperwork and a discussion started. A senior female pharmacist who I had worked with a few times asked me, “so Will, why – as a man – did you want to be a Nurse?”

On face value, it’s a question I’d been asked a few times before that point – what was my motivation for becoming a Nurse? But I was taken aback – why such heavy emphasis on my motivations ‘as a man’?

Perhaps I should have expected that sort of question. Nursing is after all an occupation which is ~90% female in the UK and representations of Nurses have traditionally been female. Our society still understands ‘caring’ as a feminine characteristic. Caring roles and responsibilities (perhaps owing to this gendered association) are seen as lower value and lower status - offering relatively low (or no) wages.

Aside from the pay and conditions of care workers, the UK Parliament estimated in 2018 that 6.5 million individuals (likely to be predominantly female) provided unpaid care for children, family or friends at an estimated equivalent cost of up to £100 billion, roughly three-quarters of the total annual NHS budget.

For a variety of reasons the Nursing workforce is in the midst of a staffing crisis, with over 40,000 vacancies across the UK. Some see the gender imbalance in Nursing as an opportunity to solve this crisis - by getting more men to apply. A few campaigns have been set up in recent years to get ‘Men in Nursing’.

Unfortunately, I think some aspects of these campaigns are problematic and misguided. Seeking to appeal to men, some of the stereotypes of Nursing (e.g. the use of gendered titles like ‘Sister’ or ‘Matron’) are framed as almost discriminatory barriers to entry for men. This approach buys into the idea that ‘feminine’ caring qualities are negatives for men.

Despite claims towards wider aims, these campaigns seem to see employing more men as an ‘end’ in itself, ignoring (and sometimes feeding into) wider issues related to caring professions. These campaigns also fail to address male privilege in Nursing. Even in a female dominated profession, men occupy more space in positions of power, being over-represented at higher pay bands and in management roles. Likewise, male Nurses are advantaged in terms of opportunity, progressing through pay bands faster than their female colleagues.

Instead of targetting Men who might see Nursing as ‘too feminine’ for them to consider, I think we should adopt a much broader approach which deals with rebalancing caring responsibilities and valuing care work (paid and unpaid) – combatting gender essentialism as well as striving to improve pay, conditions and recognition of work predominantly undertaken by women. If those cultural perceptions begin to change, more men will start to join professions like Nursing.

At the very beginning of my journey to becoming a Nurse, the only way I could respond to that Pharmacist’s question was to say, “for the same reasons a woman would want to be a Nurse.”