Skip to Content
Skip to Navigation

Striking a Balance: Can Nursing Attract More Men?

Alumnus Bob Chapman cares for the critically ill at Harborview Medical Center's cardiac intensive care unit. "It's an amazing place to work," he says. "There's never a dull moment." He began working on his PhD this fall after earning his master's degree in June, and personifies a modest upward trend in the number of men choosing to become nurses. Chapman left a 10-year career in medical records to get an associate nursing degree, and for the past eight years he's been a minority in a woman's world.

Of 2.7 million nurses in the United States, less than 6 percent are men. But historically, men dominated the field until the 1900s. Now, in a new century in which nurses are in short supply, is the pendulum swinging the other way? Ever so slightly, it is.

In 2003, 15 percent of UW undergraduate nursing students and 10 percent of graduate students were men, representing a 4 percent increase since 1998. Nationwide, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the numbers are lower at between 8 and 9 percent, but have gained ground since the mid 1990s. Chapman agrees that men continue to be underrepresented in the profession. "It's still socially challenging for people to see men in this role," he says.

"There's a mistaken idea out there that being caring, concerned and compassionate are feminine qualities. In fact, these are human qualities and if you want to draw upon them in yourself, nursing is a great career."

Besides lingering perceptions that nursing is "women's work" or professionally unchallenging, concerns about salary and work environment may deter men from entering the field, or remaining in it. A 2002 survey by the University of Pennsylvania showed that 7.4 percent of male nurses leave the profession within four years, in contrast to 4.1 percent of women. Though the issues are complex, one thing seems clear: nursing will be stronger as a profession if it more closely reflects the population it serves. Overall, nurses in the U.S. are 73 percent white and 93 percent female, while those in their care are as likely to be male as female and come from all backgrounds.

"It's good for patients to see both men and women in care-giving roles. Men bring needed balance and awareness to our field just as nurses of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds do," says Noel Chrisman, professor of psychosocial and community health. "If there are cultural and communication differences between men and women, as studies indicate, having both perspectives and approaches in nursing will enhance patient care."

Chrisman believes it will take a cultural change within nursing before men participate in larger numbers. Some people even advocate changing the name "nursing" to something less gender-biased. While not everyone may agree with that, aspects of the nursing culture may indeed cause men who want a career in health care to look at other options. "The profession will have to change itself in such a way as to promote positive images of workplace interaction, and of nursing as a rewarding profession based on skill and competency, not gender," says Chrisman.

As a part-time student outreach coordinator, Chapman plans to take this message to prospective students.

His own career illustrates the opportunities for men and women who pursue advanced nursing degrees. As an RN, he worked in telemetry for two years monitoring patients' physiological data. Then, he cared for the homeless and patients diagnosed with addictions and mental illnesses as a nurse case manage r. Since earning his BSN in 2000, Chapman has worked in cardiac ICU. In a few years, when he finishes his PhD, he wants to work in public health policy and teach the next generation of nurses.

Chapman will be front-and-center in the School of Nursing's efforts to bring diversity to nursing. "It's important to let people know that nursing is full of opportunity and is a rewarding profession," he says. By being a role model, he hopes to encourage other men to take a closer look at the profession he loves.