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Male nursing students break down gender stereotypes in medical field

Conjure up a typical scene at Belmont University.

Nursing students gather around a table at the campus Starbucks, comparing notes and leaning over the table, their crisp blue and white scrubs brushing over the cups of coffee mandated by their long days spent learning and working at their assigned hospitals.

But pause. Check your bias. Do imagine a group of women?

The Path to Nursing

Daniel Lopez chose Belmont, and nursing, his senior year of high school at the suggestion of his mom.

As he vacillated between various career paths, his mother, a pediatrician, offered up nursing, a less conventional option for Lopez, as a way to place himself in a practical field with an optimistic rate of job placement. As he considered studying music at the time, nursing felt like a firm, stable option for a college senior uncertain of his direction.

“She’s a practical woman,” Lopez said.

Now, the Belmont sophomore balances more than a few career goals, but whether he chooses to work as a nurse anesthetist, work as an emergency care nurse or travel to work on Mercy Ships providing care around the globe to people where medical care is otherwise nonexistent, he is certain to stand out for his sex.

In most of Lopez’s nursing classes, he is one of less than five males, and since male nurses comprise just under 10 percent of all nurses in the field, this is how it will stay.

Among these men is Kevin Gao, a sophomore who was introduced to nursing by his cousin, who first planted the seed of future career path.

“Nursing, no. I thought ‘that’s for girls,’” Gao said.

But when his cousin, currently in school to for nursing herself, suggested ways nursing could suit his personality, Gao softened his stance and checked his bias.

“At first, I was like ‘of course not, that’s stupid.’ But then I did research,” Gao said.

Research, for those willing to allow their socialization to erode and replace it with construct-crumbling knowledge, proves the lucrativeness of the nursing field for everyone, regardless of which bathroom door they push open.

Blame the Boomers

Between 2010 and 2030, the senior citizen population will increase by an estimated 75 percent, to a total of 69 million, a majority of which suffer from chronic diseases, as cited in “The 2030 Problem: Caring for Aging Baby Boomers,” an article in the US National Library of Medicine.

Limited hospital space, closing clinics and the aging population of current nurses combined with the challenges and strenuous nature of nursing school make registered nurses exceptionally valuable; entrance into nursing school and successful completion of various certifications are arguably the most imposing barriers to a career in the field.

Nursing offers the elusive and lucrative possibility of job security, a facet of their future career which weighs heavy on the mind of all college students.

Belmont nursing instructor Martha Ezell, M.S.N., notices a positive trend in male enrollment in nursing, and estimates 10 to 20 percent of her classes are male, a large jump from the one or two males present in nursing classes when she first came to Belmont over 10 years ago.

Part of the increase, according to both students and instructors, comes from increased education and the gradual wear down of more traditional gender roles. The stoic male is now able to reach for and foster his more compassionate side and pursue a call to nursing without facing near-debilitating stigmas and can, in turn, reap the benefits of job placement in nursing.

“Rarely do we have a nursing graduate who can’t find a job. Guys want something where they can get a job,” Ezell said.

And this job, as aspiring male nurses must undoubtedly explain to the invasively inquisitive, does not mean they are settling, falling back on nursing to pacify dreams of adding “Dr.” to their name. And while the number of men in nursing is rising, women still dress up as the sexy nurse and male nurses are still asked why they don’t want to become doctors, a dynamic powerfully indicative of the current state of gender constructs and career paths.

You don’t want to be a doctor?

Gao said it first: he gets asked about being a doctor a lot.

“I am a male nurse, and I’m Asian,” Gao said with a shrug, as if the stereotypes associated with both simply tumble off him.

With an intelligent, soft-spoken patience about him, Gao explains to the officious why he chose nursing. He doesn’t want to be in school for the time it would take to become a doctor, but he also does not want to be mistaken as someone harboring doctoral aspirations but settling for nursing. He’s quick to add the other reasons he chose nursing.

Nurses often spend more quality time with the patient than doctors and have greater opportunities to nurture, care for and interact with patients, factors pulling both men and women to nursing.

“I don’t want to go to school for that long. But I always want to help people, and I feel like nurses do that better. And that’s what I tell them. I prefer nursing. And sometimes people say ‘OK,’ and sometimes they ask another question,” Gao said.

Social Commentary

Sometimes, albeit rarely, the questions and comments extend beyond career options to orientation, although the male nurses shake it off like any other job hazard.

“My friends joke about the gay nurse, but I’m like, ‘I am a heterosexual nurse,’” Lopez said.

And for men pursuing nursing, they knew of the possibility for stigmatization before the first day of class. Some conversations the male nurses endure feel played out, and the male nurses shake them off with grace.

“One of my friends joked ‘you’re in maid school, man, you’re just going to clean bedpans,'” Lopez said.

Passionate about their work and refreshingly unphased, the nurses focus on the future of their career where gender is practically irrelevant. On the hospital floor or with the patients, as they perform patient-centered care, the nurses, both male and female, look past the jokes and focus on their job: helping preserve and improve all kinds of lives.

Sensitivity in the Classroom

But before the male nurses can reach their jobs, they must take years of classes. Classes with peers. Classes where special sensitivity to gender aids in creating a healthy learning environment.

Lopez described how he would volunteer for hands-on demonstrations to make classes less awkward, motioning on his chest to problem areas and explaining it was simply easier and less awkward for him to volunteer in front of the class.

“I caught on pretty quickly that it was just more comfortable for everyone for me to volunteer and be the one the professor demonstrated the skill on,” Lopez said.

Besides stepping forward to ease tension, men can act a catalyst to a different classroom dynamic.

“When guys are in the class, it seems to make it more lively,” Ezell said.

Additionally, the diversity male nurses provide allow the classroom setting to more closely mimic the workplace where gender relations are a consistent, if subtle, undercurrent in the hands-on field of nursing.

Actuality in the Workplace

The workplace, no matter what form it manifests itself in, raises questions and forces responses from men and women concerning socially acceptable behavior towards coworkers, and for male nurses, those questions start early as they work closely with classmates and mentors in their clinical practice.

“I think there are certain boundaries that have to be maintained. One day, if I have a wife, I can’t bring female nursing friends over. There is a certain relationship boundary that stops right there,” Lopez said.

Besides coworker interactions, there are some circumstances where the gender of the nurse merits attention and extra care. Women going into labor often feel uncomfortable with male nurses assisting them – a rational objection.

In their practice thus far, future nurses learn to address all patient concerns respectfully and with compassion, and the male nurses simultaneously learn to address their predispositions, at times learning from the maternal instincts of their female counterparts.

“Whenever we’re in the hospital, my female nurse partners seem to relate to the patient in ways that the five males in my grade find hard to do,” Gao said. “Relating to the patient seems so natural for the women. But that’s something that will change with experience.”

Experience, and the changing ways young men and women are beginning to view their career choices, make it easier for nurses like Gao to care for their patients in a way neither masculine nor feminine, but sympathetic and professional, traits which know no sex.

“I think we need encourage it. It’s discrimination to say that a guy can’t be a nurse or a girl can’t be a doctor,” Ezell said.

The increase in enrollment in Belmont’s School of Nursing, fortified by the accounts of male students and faculty, provides an encouraging microcosm for the subtle breakdown the gender gap in nursing and suggests the sexy nurse and male doctor dichotomy may soon crumble, falling down as nothing more than a blasé stereotype in the wake of the field’s growing diversity.

This article was written by Jessica King.

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