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Gender in nursing: now is the time to promote this career to men

Recruiting more men to nursing could help address the NHS staffing crisis, as well as meet patients’ needs – and to do that we need a more gender-inclusive image

Recruiting more men to nursing could help address the NHS staffing crisis, as well as meet patients’ needs – and to do that we need a more gender-inclusive image

Picture: iStock

When people think of nurses, even today, their mind’s eye is almost certainly seeing women; this, despite so many traditional gender roles and perceptions having been broken down.

As we all know, the nursing profession has a rich history of female pioneers, and the idea of women as care givers is culturally ingrained. But perhaps this doesn’t go quite as far back as we think.

Gender diversity can give patients what they want

If you happened to get sick in ancient Rome or fell ill with the plague in third century Europe, you

Recruiting more men to nursing could help address the NHS staffing crisis, as well as meet patients’ needs – and to do that we need a more gender-inclusive image

A male nurse caring for a male patient at home
Picture: iStock

When people think of nurses, even today, their mind’s eye is almost certainly seeing women; this, despite so many traditional gender roles and perceptions having been broken down.

As we all know, the nursing profession has a rich history of female pioneers, and the idea of women as care givers is culturally ingrained. But perhaps this doesn’t go quite as far back as we think.

Gender diversity can give patients what they want

If you happened to get sick in ancient Rome or fell ill with the plague in third century Europe, you were more likely to be cared for by a man. In the 14th century, the Alexian Brothers, a Christian order with a strong emphasis on caring for the infirm, spread across Europe.

So why is nursing in 2022 still such a female-orientated profession, with just 10% of Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) registrants men? If you accept my premise that this needs to change, improvement feels like a long way off.

‘The titles of sister and matron do little to encourage inclusion. They serve to reinforce the female stereotype and so deter men from joining the profession’

We must consider what patients want. The more intimate the clinical situation, the more likely it is a patient would prefer their nurse to be of the same sex as them. A male patient requiring a catheter may well rather it was a male nurse performing that task, just as a female patient may prefer a female nurse to perform a smear test.

Let’s listen to our patient voices on gender preferences, work towards a workforce with greater diversity and give patients the choice they deserve in a clinical situation. By working to increase the diversity of our workforce, we can have happier patients with better outcomes.

Representation and visibility crucial in widening recruitment

Representation is key to achieving this: show the world that male nurses not only exist but have a role to play. When recruiting, is your interview panel gender balanced? Does your marketing material show gender diversity? If the media asks for a nurse to interview, are male nurses put forward?

We talk a lot in nursing about giving value to the patient voice. On a basic level, patients who see themselves reflected in the nurse workforce will feel their voices are valued, their opinions are heard and concerns taken seriously.

We need to appeal to all genders, and the profession needs to do this with positive, inclusive action. Take for example the titles of sister and matron: these do little to encourage inclusion. They serve to reinforce the female stereotype and so deter men from joining the profession. They are no longer appropriate.

With more gender-inclusive language, we could broaden the appeal of nursing to those young men with aspirations of clinical leadership. Visibility would increase, and gender diversity would follow.

We all know about the acute shortages in nursing. I doubt there’s a single nurse reading this who can say they haven't been affected by the staffing crisis. Now is the ideal time to promote gender diversity in nursing. We need to plug the gap and appealing to men is a great start.

Promoting nursing as a rewarding career for men

Male nurses promoting their profession among other men, and the media helping to promote the idea of men in nursing would help significantly. After all, nursing is a career that men do well in, in terms of career progression and clinical opportunities.

We have had the brightest of spotlights shone on us over the past two years, and the world acquired a renewed appreciation for what we do, day in, day out. Let’s build on that and show what a rewarding career it can be – for anyone.

There is no quick fix of gender diversity in nursing, but the sooner we start, the sooner we can have a workforce that is representative of the people we care for.


Further information


Professor Emmanuel Idowu, head of the school of nursing and healthcare at University of Bradford

Professor Emmanuel Idowu is head of the school of nursing and healthcare at University of Bradford

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