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DAVID McARTHUR: We need to sell nursing to men as well as women as being exciting and rewarding

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A career in nursing can open many doors – for both men and women.
A career in nursing can open many doors – for both men and women.

THIS year is the centenary of male nurses being admitted to the register of nursing in Great Britain and it is a good opportunity to consider, using a 21st century lens, why there are so few men in the profession.

I have been a registrant for just over 40 years. When I started my nurse training in the late 1970s the proportion of male registered nurses was around 10 per cent. In March 2022 the figure sat at 11 per cent, so the increase in percentage terms over 40+ years is far from impressive. Why is this the case? One issue is the stereotyping of nursing as a feminised profession. Others refer to the remuneration. Or is it both?

In terms of pay, it could always be better, but that would impact on female colleagues as well and doesn’t explain the broad difference in numbers.

So let’s consider how the stereotypes transpired.

From the mid-19th century Florence Nightingale revolutionised nursing by combining scientific discipline and compassion. This was at a time when the option to enter the “professions” was difficult, bordering on the impossible, for women. To address these constraints she also sought to feminise nursing, to establish an accessible professional career structure for women.

The schools of nursing established by Florence were populated exclusively by female students, promoting a female-only ethos. This was reinforced by the view that the empathic caring and nurturing elements of nursing were a natural extension of the female domestic role,

The effect over the years was to portray nursing as an exclusively female occupation. This stereotype, although fading, has prevailed since the 1850s and has had an enduring impact on the recruitment of males to the profession.

Also consider how this stereotype became supported by the establishment. The Nursing Registration Act 1919 granted legal recognition to male and female nurses, but only females were granted full registration. Male registrants, mainly trained within the army, were recorded on a supplementary part of the register until 1949.

Even today research, including work conducted by the Scottish Government in 2017, identified stereotyping as a major constraint on recruitment.

So, what are the opportunities for a male nurse? As one of those relatively rare male registrants, I can share my experiences.

I trained as a mental health nurse in the late 1970s, then retrained as a general nurse with post graduate qualifications in theatres and ITU in the early 1980s. I used my qualifications and skills to travel and work within my speciality, which was operating theatres. I have also worked in a number of health-related roles, ranging from health planning in the UK and abroad to healthcare development director and chief executive within the charity sector.

I combined my nursing career with time as a medical reservist, deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan as a medical planner and commanding officer of a field hospital. Currently, I am director of nursing for NHS Orkney, supporting NHS Highland with a variety of projects.

The days of gender discrimination within the profession are gone, but stereotyping from outside still lingers, and continues to impact on recruitment, despite positive TV role models.

Currently as a society we are facing a shortage of nurses entering the profession and an ageing profile of those currently in it. We need to celebrate the contribution of men in nursing and sell our profession to men as well as women as an exciting and rewarding experience with opportunities for personal and career development.

There are many routes in to nursing and a number of roles currently being offered by NHS Highland. Find out more at www.jobs.scot.nhs.uk

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