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It’s still a woman’s world

For men drawn to nursing, following the call means ignoring the many voices insisting they don’t belong; that’s just one reason recruiting more males will require a culture shift. 

It won’t come as a surprise to most readers that in Australia, male nurses are heavily in the minority compared with their female counterparts.

In fact, the ratio is so skewed that men comprise only 10 per cent of the nursing workforce, the Nursing and Midwifery workforce 2012 report states.

Strong pre-conceived perceptions of nursing as women’s work, average pay (though this has improved) and a lack of male role models and mentors are barriers to entry for men considering a career in nursing.

But Jonathon Clarke was one person who bucked the trend and felt a calling to the profession.

“I guess I always had an interest in nursing. My mother was a nurse, and I would say nursing was a calling on my life journey,” Clarke says. “I even met with opposition within my own family when I first decided to go into nursing, but it’s a job that has always appealed to me.”

Clarke fought through the barriers to now hold the position of relieving residential manager across Carinity’s nine residential aged-care centres. He has worked in a variety of areas throughout his career, including mental health, general nursing, midwifery emergency and operating theatre in both clinical and managerial roles.

“When I applied to go nursing, I was not long out of school and still living at home, so I applied at my local Base Hospital in a large provincial city and was advised, ‘We do not take male nurses unless they are married and/or have a psychiatric nursing certificate,” Clarke says.

“Still, I believed in the calling that I was to go nursing and so I applied at the local psychiatric hospital and was accepted first as an assistant nurse. This was a trial before being allowed to commence my training, as this was the late 1970s.”

Clarke attained his psychiatric nursing qualification and moved to a major metropolitan hospital to gain more experience. He says his first experiences as a general nurse were regularly being called upon to help lift heavy patients and help curtail aggressive male patients.

“I think male nurses were initially just viewed as being useful for their strength,” he says. “The time that I felt most discriminated [against] as a male nurse was when I undertook midwifery training, again in a regional hospital where I had been employed for a few years. Whilst I was prepared for possible resistance from patients, I was not prepared for the opposition from the senior tutor who made it very clear that there was no role for males in midwifery, not even male doctors for that matter.

“But at that time in the mid-1980s, it was almost essential to have midwifery experience to work in rural and remote nursing, which I was interested in.”

Now, having worked his way up the ladder, Clarke believes it is time to address the stigmas attached to nursing.

“It would be good if there was an advertising campaign showing what a rewarding job nursing is for males as well as females and that it’s important for patients in hospitals and residents in aged-care centres to have both sexes working as nurses.

“Nursing isn’t all just about giving medicine and injections; it’s about forming relationships with the residents and having a friendly chat, as we really try to create a homely environment at Carinity’s aged-care centres. Men like the company of other males, and this is especially relevant [for men] in aged care, as the residents are predominantly female.”

The Nursing and Midwifery report states that of 238,520 enrolled nurses, 10.4 per cent are male, with an average age of 44.3 years old. Of the 51,264 enrolled nurses, 9.2 per cent are men, with an average age of 46.

The Health Workforce Australia report states that in 2011, almost one-third (5,725) of all nurses (both registered and enrolled) working in the mental health clinical area were male. The clinical areas of critical care and emergency (with 15 per cent, or 4074 male nurses) and rehabilitation and disability (with 12 per cent, or 1046 male nurses) also had higher percentages of males than the overall nursing population.

Of the non-clinical areas, management (with 14 per cent or 1,084 men) and education (with 11 per cent or 551 men) also had higher percentages of males than the overall nursing population.

Clarke isn’t the only one concerned with the perception of male nurses. Dr David Stanley, associate professor, school of population health, University of Western Australia, compiled a DVD titled Men in Nursing in 2012 to highlight the great work men do in the industry. It was supported and made with representatives of all five Western Australian universities, a grant from the WA Nurses Memorial Charitable Trust and the support of the WA chief nurse. The DVD was sent to every school in Western Australia.

It followed a research paper Stanley wrote about the portrayal of male nurses in movies. Celluloid Devils: a research study of male nurses in feature films reviewed movies that featured male nurses between the years 1900 and 2007.

The overall conclusion was that male nurses were portrayed in a negative light. They were seen as morally corrupt, effeminate or simply incompetent. They offered a flawed insight into the character of the male nurse.

“From my DVD interviews the themes that came across for male nurses were that they liked being well-respected, they could travel with their jobs, they enjoyed their work environment and it was reasonably well paid,” Stanley says. “None of what was portrayed in American movies transpired in real life.

“Another important factor revealed was that once men joined the nursing profession they tended to stay; having beaten through all the barriers they wanted to make a commitment.”

But Stanley says it’s time for a more relevant nursing campaign to eradicate the stereotyping.

“In America, they have a campaign running where they are seeking to attract a 20 per cent quota of male nurses by 2020,” he says. “What they are seeing there is that a lot of ex-military who get free study once they serve are entering the profession of nursing.

“We need advertising where male nurses talk about the profession and show the caring aspect of it,” Stanley says. “Men are still largely perceived as being gay if they want to become a nurse.

“The fact is that we are going to face a big shortage of nurses in the future and we are ignoring 50 per cent of the population.”

Evan Player is a registered nurse who has worked in New Zealand, England, the

Isle of Man and Australia. He has been working in Townsville for the past nine years, where he is clinical nurse at the Townsville Secure Mental Health Rehabilitation Unit. He has experience working in a number of medical and mental health settings. He attained his master’s degree in Mental Health Nursing in 2008, and has been a member of the College of Mental Health Nurses since that year, becoming a credentialed mental health nurse in 2011.

He has strong views on the male nurse imbalance.

“First – as a profession – we have to decide whether the status quo is a problem,” he says. “Second, if we decide it is a problem we should research other industries that have faced similar issues and see what lessons could be applied to change the status quo. Third, we would have to decide whether the changes required would be acceptable to the dominant established culture.

“I have unique perspective, as I have seen a dominant culture challenged before I was a nurse.  I used to work in a foundry.  It was a man’s world. It was the type of work environment where the walls were covered with pictures of naked women.

“Whilst I was there, the dominant culture was forced to take the pictures down, and they resented it.  I suspect some of those who are ensconced in the dominant culture of nursing (white, middle class, female) will resent it if they are forced to change, too.”

Player says in his first nursing job it was hard lasting only eight weeks, whereupon he seriously considered leaving the profession for good. It took him a long time to cope with the “dominant female culture”, though he concedes part of the problem was his own immaturity.

“There is a subtle process of hazing that occurs.  When you do not understand the dominant female culture you are working in, it becomes very hard.  It is very easy to be pushed outside the group social cliques that women form and become the target.”

But, he concedes, promotion for men is pretty good and when men stick at nursing they seem to advance quite quickly. “I do not see career advancement for me as a problem.”

Murray Fisher, associate professor Sydney nursing school at the University of Sydney, believes that as long as people value “money-making professions”, the entry of males into nursing will be low.

“People need to value caring professions that give you enormous personal satisfaction,” Fisher says. “As a society, we always emphasise what careers bring about the most amount of money but that doesn’t always equate with fulfilment.

“It is interesting that feminism has given more women different career opportunities and now we have more than 50 per cent of medicine candidates being women.”

Murray says more men are entering the profession and they are coming from more varied backgrounds.

Nursing is a viable and rewarding career for any man, where career progression, travel and a variety of experiences await.

Reversing the roles

Nathan Haynes joined the profession not only because his mother was a nurse, but also because he spent so much time in emergency as a child and teenager.

“I was always injuring myself and mum inspired me through her calmness and organisational ability,” he says. Nathan enrolled in TAFE to study nursing and not long after his first job he made the move to Western Australia from New South Wales.

“My girlfriend is studying medicine and got accepted into a university in Perth so I followed,” Haynes says. “I am now studying a master’s of nursing at UWA whilst working at Royal Perth Hospital.”

He believes that whilst there is an increase in males joining the profession, it is important that the marketing campaign starts focusing on the younger generation.

“We need to start targeting schools and emphasising the variety and fulfilment of the role to schoolchildren,” he says. “You are still perceived as either being gay or too masculine by patients, so that needs to change; however, once patients get to know you they are fine.”

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