This is me venturing out of my personal narratives and into an op-ed style...
While doing an observation at a pre-school for my Pediatric Nursing course, a four-year-old girl entered the classroom and, curious to identify the strangers in her classroom, asked her teacher, “Who are the new people?” Her teacher responded plainly by stating that we were nursing students. The little girl’s face quickly changed from an innocent and curious expression to being conflicted and confused. She took a long pause and then looked up at her teacher and said, “But there’s a boy in here.”
Indeed there is a boy in here—right smack-dab in the middle of many people’s privately held stereotype of what a nurse looks like. The little girl, of course, is certainly not without adult company. On more than one occasion I have been asked, “So you’re going to be a male nurse?” as if I was still in the process of choosing my sex as well as my profession.
Yes indeed! I’m a “murse”. Or, more accurately, a “mursing” student. And to be perfectly honest, I’m never offended by people’s surprise at a man becoming a nurse; not only do I revel in throwing people for a loop, I understand that some part of their stereotype is not without basis. According to the 2002 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses, only 5.4 percent of RNs in the United States are men. Given the fact that registered nurses constitute the largest health care occupation, with 2.5 million jobs, the chances of interacting with a female nurse are pretty likely.
What does trouble me, however, is the all-too-frequent follow up question, “Why didn’t you go to medical school?” Given that 72.2 percent of physicians are male, I suppose I should probably expect this question, too. And yet, I am simultaneously fascinated and deeply concerned by how infrequently the flip side of this question, “Why didn’t you go to nursing school?” isn’t being asked of medical students. Clearly, nursing is not on equal footing with medicine.
I believe that the reason that this question isn’t asked points to a different, very misguided part of the nursing stereotype that is seldom discussed openly: that nursing is some sort of a lesser, sloppy-second alternative to medicine—particularly for a boy. I take serious issue with this aspect of the stereotype not only because is it categorically untrue, but also because this belief is extremely dangerous due to its roots in the long-standing power struggle between men and women. Historically, women have been professionally subjugated to men due to the inaccurate and sexist perception that men are smarter than women.
The reason that this hushed stereotype still exists is rooted in socially constructed and learned behavior. As exemplified by the four year-old at the pre-school, from a very young age we learn gender rules on a variety of subjects that range from toys and clothes to behavior and jobs. Consequently, I believe that the average Joe and Josephine on the street quietly subscribes to the idea that nursing, being female dominated, is also associated with the female personality attributes of caring and empathy while medicine, being male-dominated, is associated with the male personality attribute of scientific objectivity. Or, put more simply, RNs are sensitive girls and doctors are scientific boys. Furthermore, this translates to why Joe and Josephine view medical science, being more quantifiable than the ever-ambiguous emotion, as being equated with intelligence, while they view nursing as less intelligent.
It is absolutely time to smash these perceptions. Easy. Although it is true that nursing fosters a slightly more nurturing perspective than medicine, nursing is an incredibly dynamic field that includes nursing research on subjects not traditionally associated with nurses. For example, a colleague of mine, Monica R. McLemore, a Ph.D. Candidate and American Cancer Society Fellow at the University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing, recently described her research to me, “Simply put, I study the isoforms of CA125, which is a tumor marker of ovarian cancer. I also attempt to correlate these isoforms (using kilodalton size as a proxy for the true amino acid sequence, since I'm not THAT well funded) to serum concentration.” How about them apples?
As a man within a traditionally female-dominated profession, I am acutely aware of the fact that my presence in this profession is still perceived with some discomfort due to the fact that the socially constructed stereotypes of yesteryear still govern many people’s perception of the field. My message to you is this: let’s evolve people. It is absolutely time that we embrace a more enlightened perspective in order to truly understand the incredibly dynamic and diverse field of nursing.