When an accident brought Drew Brown to the emergency room in January 2000, hospital workers took on new importance to him. The nurses who attended to Brown became critical players in a moment of trauma and uncertainty.
The first nurse’s indifference evoked feelings of distrust and fear. A second nurse developed a relationship with Brown that comforted him and made him feel empowered to make decisions. The impact of these differences helped Brown decide to become a nurse.
Wait. Many people would clarify that Brown decided to become a “male nurse.”
The need for this distinction hints at a gender divide in the demographics of some professions. Brown made a career choice based on personal experiences and interests — yet he still stands out as unusual.
This isn’t a new occurrence; many other cultures throughout the world have separated male and female labor. But in the United States, this continued division in some workplaces stands in stark contrast to our culture’s emphasis on individuality and equality. Nursing means more than a paycheck to Brown, a senior at MU. He said he craves the intensity and excitement of the high-pressure atmosphere of an emergency room, a nursing area with an inordinately high percentage of men.
“The challenge appeals to me, and it appeals to a lot of guys,” Brown said. “Speaking in general, men thrive in that type of environment.”
Thriving men are few in the the nursing profession.
At MU, men have constituted less than 12 percent of nursing students for the past eight years. Since 2000, they have made up less than 10 percent. This pattern extends beyond universities. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 6 percent of nurses in the country are male.
Organizations and schools across the nation are searching for ways to change this pattern, especially with recent nursing shortages.
The University of Missouri-Kansas City started an undergraduate nursing program three years ago, with the first class graduating this month. UMKC has made an effort to teach and prepare underrepresented groups to be successful in nursing; the UMKC School of Nursing targets blacks, Hispanics, Asians and men.
“The goal is that eventually the population of nurses mirrors the population they serve,” said Thad Wilson, associate dean for the UMKC School of Nursing.
Wilson’s background in nursing has led him to think gender roles are instilled at the beginning of adolescence.
“The visual images of nursing are so feminine that boys from sixth grade to the end of high school don’t have what it takes to declare they want to be nurses, because it’s so important to be what is considered a man,” Wilson said. “To change this, we’re going to have to reach down to these early grades.”
Brown said he has never felt any censure from the doctors and nurses he works with. But he said that some patients — especially elderly patients — seem less comfortable with his gender. And he knows people outside the medical community hold preconceived notions.
“There is a stigma with male nurses because it was viewed as a woman’s role for so long,” he said. “Men picture male nurses as someone very effeminate who is in touch with their feelings or something.”
Mark Pioli, a graduate student and assistant sociology professor at MU, has observed that women who cross gender lines are labeled as empowered, while men who cross gender lines are deemed less masculine. Part of this may be because of the definition of masculinity.
“Women have an easier time breaking into new professions because it is not unexpected for women to challenge stereotypes,” Pioli said. “Masculinity is more fragile and defined largely in terms of what is not female.”
Zach Strom, a senior in elementary education and a kicker for the MU football team, faces constant teasing about his major. In his more recent classes, there are usually one or two guys in classes of about 25 students. But for him, deciding on a career wasn’t about fitting into a definition of masculinity — it was a lot simpler.
“All the guys on the team ask me how I can stand to do this for a job when we do volunteer work at the Boys and Girls Club,” Strom said. “But I just like being around kids.”
Women are also the minority in many professions. In engineering at MU, women have made up less than 20 percent of students for the past eight years — and the numbers have steadily declined. Women have made up less than 13 percent for the past two years.
Brown plans on starting a nursing position in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at University Hospital, working the night shift on the weekends so he can be home with his two daughters during the day. Nursing has given him confidence to make tough decisions, he said, and it has also taught him an important lesson to convey to his children.
“It’s made me really think about gender roles,” he said, “and I’m going to try really hard not to instill those in my children.”