Home | Top Stories | It’s time to reconstruct our ideas of masculinity and get more men into nursing
Nick Hayward appearing on the ABC's 7.30 program. Photo: ABC

It’s time to reconstruct our ideas of masculinity and get more men into nursing

Nick Hayward is only six weeks or so into his nursing career and although he has come to the job later than some – aged 31 – he is finally joining the family business. Both his mother and sister are nurses, but like many men, nursing was not a career path he ever considered when growing up.

“Mum's a nurse, my sister is also a nurse and both are still working as nurses. And despite that, I don't think I ever really considered a career in healthcare growing up,” Nick tells me.

“I had a lot of different interests and a lot of different passions. I sort of fell into a career in retail management and sales. At one point, I think, in my youth I wanted to be a marine biologist. I had other dreams of being, like a lot of kids, an astronaut and a firefighter and that sort of jazz.”

Like many men, Nick had ingrained notions of what and who a nurse could be. Nursing was not the sort of work suited to men, he once thought, but this is something he and the wider health community want to change.

Data taken in 2017 shows that men make up just 11.75 per cent of the registered nursing workforce in Australia. This is on par with comparable countries such as the United Kingdom (10.2 per cent), the US (7.2 per cent) and Canada (6 per cent). This points to a wider flaw in societal thinking when it comes to male nursing and leaves behind an untapped resource for a profession facing a shortfall in workers.

With an ageing and growing population, the number of RNs needed is expected to hit 330,900 by 2023, up from 279,600 in 2018, leaving a shortfall of 51,300 jobs.

“I think a lot of that comes down to the way I perceived nursing as not the sort of work that I would be suited to as a man, or not the sort of work that would be suited to my idea of masculinity and what it meant to grow up as a man,” Nick admits.

Even today, he can be a source of fun for his mates and he puts that down to a lack of understanding and a lack of representation in the media and entertainment.

“I'm still 'Nick the nurse' as much as I kind of hate it. But that 'male nurse' even has to be an epithet itself? I mean, it shouldn't. We're all just nurses, right? But you've got to take it in good humour.

“There was definitely a lot of ribbing at first and I think that comes from a lack of understanding, a lack of exposure. Nurses, particularly male nurses, don't feature prominently in media and entertainment.

“And the idea that we have a male nurse, I think, as a society is they're all sort of deviant or hidden away, and that filters down into the kinds of interactions that I had with my mates early on. I think some of them didn't understand why I would want to go into a career in a caring profession. Some of them just thought it was a bit of a laugh.”

Photo: ABC

And, as over the last decade societal understanding of traditional gender roles and masculinity have begun to change, Nick is uniquely placed to dissect this change and talk about new ideas of masculinity.

“Those sorts of attitudes have definitely made me reflect on the kinds of attitudes we all hold and have been taught to hold towards certain professions in ways of being a man. Some of it is from growing up and being taught as a teenager; there was a certain way to be a man and it was expected that you were strong and stoic and silent and into sports and naturally funnelled into a certain kind of job and place in society.

“I think reflecting on that, I didn't quite fit in or I never quite felt comfortable with that, and then coming into nursing and suddenly realising that I actually just really enjoy looking after people.

“And I really get a lot out of caring in a highly technical and a skilled way as a nurse does for others in their time of need – that means a lot to me. And that, for me at least, was not compatible wholly with that idea of masculinity that I'd grown up with. So, I think having to reframe that for myself has led to a lot of that reflection. And I guess that pattern is a fairly common one.”

Male nurses have often been stereotyped in society and the media as effeminate or even bumbling and incompetent. These tropes can deter men from entering the profession and the more men like Nick call this out, the more likely change will come.

“Men that come to nursing, particularly later in life, tend to either have a personal experience with nurses – they have been hospitalised or have had a family member hospitalised and have come to see what nurses actually do and what the job's actually like – or they have family members or significant others that are nurses, so have an understanding of what the profession is instead of the stereotypes and that limited understanding of what the job involves,” he says.

“And I think the broader piece there is that firstly, as a society, we need to value the work of nurses and healthcare professionals more broadly. And secondly that we need to reconstruct our ideas of masculinity.

"It's not okay to suggest to young boys and men, whether implicitly or explicitly, that there are only a certain subset of jobs that they can fit into and still be masculine. Really, as long as they're comfortable in themselves, they can make their idea of what it means to be a man. And sometimes that means caring for others and that's a perfectly acceptable thing to do, and perhaps elevating it to a really admirable thing to do.”

Nick says that male nurses should get out there for some “evangelism and spreading the good word of nursing,” especially to young boys, and he points to programs such as the Australian College of Nursing’s ‘Men in Nursing Working Party’ as positive steps towards getting more men into the profession.

“I'd love to do some things in schools. I think that's an important step in the process to capture and provide those role models to boys as they're setting out into the workforce or considering going to uni and making those decisions. I think receiving that idea is quite important,” says Nick.

“Nursing as a career is devalued by some because that sort of emotional labour, that caring work isn't seen as the highly skilled, technical professional occupation that it is.”

Over his first six weeks, Nick says he knew he made the right choice. Seeing patients go from a place of vulnerability to where they can crack a smile has convinced him of that. The chance to be a part of those journeys is the reason he thinks other men should take a chance on nursing.

“I would say to them, take the plunge.

“Be confident in yourself and who you are and the kind of man you want to be and know that it's okay to care, that it's okay to embrace that side of yourself that wants to look after other people and help others on their journey,” he says.

“If you want to get into a profession where you can do that for a job, consider nursing because it's a highly skilled, highly technical, evidence-based profession where you get to care for people every day and go home feeling good about what you've done.”

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