The enduring stereotype of the male nurse

The number of male nurses across Canada has doubled in 10 years

A turn for the 'murse'

Todd Korol

One recent November day, Tyler Hume, a 20-year-old nursing student, was at work in the maternity ward of Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre. Tending to a patient who’d just given birth, he listened to her heart and checked other vital signs, then moved on to her new baby. Being a male nurse in a maternity unit can be tricky, he says—but as one of just a handful of men in the University of Calgary’s entire faculty of nursing, Hume is used to feeling like the odd man out sometimes. “It’s unconscious things, like when [an instructor] is talking about a nursing action, and always refers to the nurse as ‘she,’ ” he says. To create a resource for men in the program, he co-founded the Nursing Guys’ Group, a club for male nursing students.

This fall, 13 per cent of the high school students admitted to the University of Calgary’s nursing program were male, an all-time high. Across the country, the number of male nurses has doubled in the past decade, according to the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA), and now sits at roughly six per cent. But, compared to other professions that suffer from a gender imbalance, nursing is still incredibly skewed. Consider the fact that about 19 per cent of Canadian police officers are female, or that upwards of 30 per cent of elementary school teachers are male. The CNA predicts we’ll be short about 60,000 nurses by 2015, but there are no national strategies to attract more men into the profession. Calgary’s Nursing Guys’ Club is one of the few supports that’s been set up specifically for male nurses, who still face what Hume calls a “societal stigma.”

Male nurses have long been viewed as “less masculine,” notes a study in the American Journal of Men’s Health in November that attempts to put this stereotype to bed. Researchers took a survey of male and female nursing students across the U.S., scoring them based on certain personality traits. It concluded that the nursing profession attracts “males who hold a high degree of masculinity.” The fact that researchers bother to study questions like this might seem surprising, but gender-driven clichés about the nursing profession go back generations: for women, it’s “Hot Lips” Houlihan, or the “sexy nurse” Halloween costume. If female nurses are over-sexualized, male nurses are just the opposite, like Ben Stiller’s goofy character in Meet the Parents. On the TV show Scrubs, one of the main characters (a female doctor) finds herself attracted to a “murse,” despite her initial aversion to his profession.

Gender can impact a nurse’s role while on duty, but not in the ways these stereotypes would suggest. “Men have traditionally been used as the muscle, to lift heavy patients, or sometimes to fill the role of security guard,” says Peter Kellett, a nursing instructor at the University of Lethbridge who studies male nurses. In 1996, while working in Texas, he recalls being called in to deal with a violent patient. “I was shoved into this room, and there was a guy waving a knife,” he says. “I’m not a physical person,” so instead of restraining him, he talked him down until the police came. In a 2009 Statistics Canada study, 46 per cent of male nurses said they’d been physically assaulted by a patient in the previous year, compared to 33 per cent of female nurses.

Like the University of Calgary, Lethbridge has seen an influx of male students: of their first-year class of 170, according to Kellett, 25 are men. Even if things are changing, though, the pace can seem glacial. Chris Coxon, a 32-year-old nursing student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says he never even saw a male guest speaker in his program until third year. “Nursing will be female-dominated for the considerable future,” he predicts. In his class of 145, there are just five males. “With so many women, it will take years to balance out.”

But in this tight job market, a high demand for nurses has become an attraction to males and females alike. For men who choose nursing, the profession can be incredibly rewarding. “Shows like Grey’s Anatomy and House give the impression a physician is with the patient all day, but the reality is, they might only see the patient for a few minutes,” Kellett says. “Nurses work with patients all the time, and develop more of a relationship with them.” This connection has been a huge part of the appeal for Riley Simister, 19, a second-year nursing student in Calgary. “I like the hands-on work with people,” says Simister, who recently gave flu vaccines to the public as part of his program.

Mathieu LeBreton, 27, works as a nurse in the emergency department at the Ottawa Hospital’s Civic Campus. “I’ve been practising 4½ years, and haven’t looked back,” he says. A self-professed “adrenalin junkie,” he finds the work exciting and challenging, since no two days are the same. “Whether it’s a male nurse or a female, we’re just making sure the patient is safe,” he says. As more men like LeBreton become the public face of nursing—instead of Ben Stiller, quaking before prospective father-in-law Robert De Niro—this worn-out stereotype will finally fade away.


The enduring stereotype of the male nurse

  1. Vanada???

    • That’s where Vanadium comes from.

  2. Someone needs to tell Todd his patient is dead. 

  3. You might have a problem working on the Maternity ward as a male nurse. Female Patients can be pretty fussy and Don’t like men looking at their private parts…Anywhere else is okay. In the ICU, Emergency, Telemetry Unit there are lots of male nurses and I’m one of them.

    • After you have given birth, you are de-sensitized to men looking at your “private parts”.  That is why it is so puzzling to breastfeeding mothers to be told that they can’t breastfeed at the shopping mall.  They already understand that breasts are just a milk-delivering system and the body is just a baby-delivery system…..all semblance of modesty has been shed and left behind during the birthing experience.

    • After my first baby was born, I was seen by several student nurses in training. They each had to check on my fourth degree tear. I found the whole idea of being used as a teaching subject awkward but necessary, and I did find the visit by the one male nursing student more awkward then the rest. As a patient, I do find myself still surprised when a male nurse comes to tend to me. I hope that changes.

  4. Male nurses tend to migrate toward mangement, psychiatry and the emergency room.  Their preference for psychiatry and the ER explains why they are in violent altercations more often than women….people in those areas get hit more often.  Women who work with elderly also get hit often but don’t report it.  I have never heard of male nurses being asked to deal with the violent patients…we have security in the hospital that come up and assist with them.  The female nurses never get preferential treatment nor do they ask for it.  If you are afraid to work in an area where you encounter violence, you pick another speciality where that is rarely the case, such as public health or maternity.  The same with heavy lifting.  Everyone does their share or you cannot stay in the job.

  5. My nephew chose nursing years prior to entering nursing school.  While working his way towards nursing school he played football and worked as a bouncer; he was all man.
    Upon graduating, with a wife and family on the way, all he could get for work as a nurse was part time.  He stuck to his guns in the face of rejection after rejection for full time positions as they came open.  It became clear he was facing reverse discrimination from hospitals head nurse; a female.
    Eventually his seniority allowed him to appeal a last rejection and has been working as a nurse for…a few decades now.  He was a pioneer in improving nursing standards…talk about irony, huh?

  6. I’m an RN and work the streets of Victoria. It was easy for me to decide. Nearly half the population of the planet are men. I saw, while working for Cool-Aid, a street shelter, before I became an RN, a need for males to relate to males. The dynamic is different with women, and men will very often not relate to women. Street people we’re talking about here. The men would then go without. But I saw when they talked to me they would let me in. Ah ha! No regrets. Excellent wage, Mon-Fri, 8-4. All the crack, meth and opiates you can stand. Mean streets.

    • Thats pretty crazy man, I live in Victoria & I know how it is, good for you though, fighting the good fight! 

      Spare 50 cents!!

  7. I am a 6 per center!

  8. Double wow. I used to post on Macleans all the time. I just started in my email, password and boom, Macleans still recognizes me. That’s like 3-4 years ago.

  9. Male nurses. Hahaha. Hahahahaha. 

    • Saile back on your coconut leaf to puerto-mexico

  10. Im a male 3rd year nursing student finishing my preceptorship on an acute care stroke and medicine unit. I get asked all the time when I walk into a patients room (male and female patients alike) to do something like a morning wash or catheter care if they can instead have a female nurse. It’s very frustrating sometimes, especially when I have to find a female nurse who isn’t too busy to take over a portion of my patient case load. That’s why I would choose to end up in the ER or ICU or Community somewhere. Simply because I wouldn’t have to encounter this problem so often, not because that’s where my passion lies.

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