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More men join nursing field as stigma starts to fade

9:16 AM, Jul 10, 2013   |    comments
Ryan McFarland, an RN at Sumner Regional Medical Center in Gallatin, Tenn., talks with Harold Bowdon after his total knee replacement, Tuesday July 9, 2013.
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by Lexy Gross, The Tennessean 

Ryan McFarland never let gender stereotypes stand in the way of his decision to become a nurse.

He considers it "a manly job," a description he is happy to explain.

McFarland is a registered nurse at Sumner Regional Medical Center in Gallatin, Tenn., where he has worked since graduation.

He helps make up the small percentage of male nurses, which has steadily, but slowly, been on the rise since the 1970s.

As of 2011, 9.6 percent of all registered nurses in the U.S. were male, according to a recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau. That percentage has tripled in three decades, from 2.7 percent in 1970.

"I guess my friends thought, since I played sports in high school, that I would take on a more manly job," McFarland said. "But this is a manly job. There are so many things in this field that aren't easy - most people don't have the stomach for it."

Bandages, bedpans, moving patients from bed to bed - all require fortitude.

Peter Buerhaus, a professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University, said he believes the social stigmas associated with men in nursing are disappearing. He also thinks the economic benefits are attracting more males to the field.

"We saw the nation lose hundreds of jobs during the recession, but health care grew in the number of jobs it produced, and nursing played a huge part," Buerhaus said. "People notice that when they come out of high school, there's no longer a negative stigma."

Tom Marquart, a senior nursing student at Belmont University, said his friends teased him but never seriously questioned his decision to apply for the nursing program. Marquart dabbled in history, education and construction before he finally found his calling in the nursing program.

"Once I started, I knew immediately," he said.

A part-time job at a downtown Nashville honky-tonk has given Marquart some insight into how stereotypes of nursing have changed. Marquart said when he tells customers he is in the nursing program at Belmont, they congratulate him on his choice.

Buerhaus said he thinks men choose nursing instead of other careers in medicine for some of the same reasons women do. For one thing, he said, it often means more direct involvement with patients, the community and families, and more emphasis on prevention.

A doctor's care, Buerhaus said, is more focused on the pathology and specific treatment of a patient. He said both occupations are critical to successful health care.

Marquart considered becoming a physician's assistant after he graduates, but after some research decided to become a nurse practitioner, which allows him to diagnose illnesses and prescribe treatment on a limited basis.

"The nursing model is much more care-based, and it fits me better," Marquart said.

History of the stereotype

The U.S. Census Bureau report identifies some of the stereotypes associated with nursing and some of the reasons men have not rushed into the field.

Originally, nursing often emerged as a military or religious role, and the field was often filled by men. A shift started during the Civil War, when men were engaged in other pursuits and women stepped into those positions.

By the 1900s, nursing schools were admitting only women, and the Army and Navy Nurse Corps were limited to women. Men were not allowed to serve in nursing positions in those organizations until after the Korean War.

Although McFarland thinks the stigma against men in nursing is disappearing, he said there are still people who see it as a women's profession.

Taylor Fife, president of the American Assembly for Men in Nursing at Vanderbilt and currently a nurse practitioner, sees it every day.

"Not many days go by that I'm not mistaken for being a doctor," he said. "Even when I tell them I'm not - the stereotype of men as doctors and women as nurses is still there."

McFarland said several of his former patients have doubted his ability to care for them. That only changes after they have a positive experience, he said.

He thinks a change in the way male nurses are viewed could potentially change health care.

"We had courses in school where women tended to view certain situations in a different light than men," McFarland said. "If you have two varying perspectives, you may get better solutions."

Uneven wages

In an odd twist, although men represent only a tenth of all nurses, they earn more than women in the same roles.

Female nurses working full time, year-round earn 93 cents for every dollar men earn as RNs. Women earn even less as nurse practitioners, making 87 cents for every dollar a man earns.

But while the wage gap persists in nursing jobs, it remains smaller than the gap for all professions of 77 cents for women to every dollar earned by men.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that men are reaching for higher-paying nursing positions more often than women

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