If someone asks you to picture a doctor, it’s likely you’ll picture a man. If someone asks you to picture a nurse, it’s more likely you’ll picture a woman.
This unconscious bias is on the way to being addressed on the medical front as female medical student numbers have escalated in recent years – with women now accounting for over half of medical professionals at a training grade. Yet the amount of men training to become nurses has plateaued for decades at between 8-11 per cent.
Why is this?
There is a misconception that Florence Nightingale ‘invented’ nursing, yet men have historically cared and nursed people as far back as Ancient Rome and Greece, on the medieval battlefields, within monasteries and during the European black plagues.
Despite the history, there are many suggestions for why this gender imbalance exists within nursing, and societal opinion is certainly one of them.
The stereotypical view of nurses being female handmaidens to doctors, as opposed to autonomous skilled practitioners, has been widely held both within professional settings and the general public.
Outdated job titles such as ‘Sister’ and ‘Matron’ have not really helped the profession encompass men within nursing. The perception that nursing is a low-paid vocation and not a career may also have deterred men from entering the profession.
People are living longer, the NHS is stretched, and we need more nurses to meet a national need, but public misconceptions mean that we as a society are already alienating 50 per cent of a potential workforce.
In 1985 whilst studying my A levels in rural Cornwall I first started to think about nursing as a career choice. I had no family association to nursing, but had visited hospital casualties many times with broken bones and was always amazed at the friendly, caring approach of nurses towards me.
After a successful interview, I was accepted to start my nurse training at the Plymouth School of Nursing based at Derriford Hospital. But I was one of four men in my nursing cohort out of the 28 new starters, and we were really seen as a novelty.
Fellow nurses and patients were often intrigued as to why I wanted to be a nurse. A common misconception was that I was a failed doctor or wanted to train to be a doctor after I had completed my nurse training and, despite a career which has seen me nurse on surgical wards before a seven-year spell working as a Practice Development Charge Nurse – this never changed as I went on. It hasn’t changed now – people assume that you’re not as clever as a doctor, and as a male you should want to ‘go higher’.