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Practice comment

'I can’t be the only male community nurse who gets to read the gas meter'

Did you know that nursing was originally a principally male occupation? We have Florence Nightingale to thank for enduring notions that nursing is work requiring traditionally female attributes and hence suited more for women.

Subsequent years of publicity and propaganda have consolidated this view. Despite efforts in recruitment, men still only make up about 10% of the workforce, clustered mainly in mental health -historically an area considered acceptable for males - and the more “macho” areas of nursing including intensive care, theatre and A&E.

Community nursing fares even worse with, according to recent research, around 5% of the workforce being male. There are even less male practice nurses. Why should this be?


I’m sure I’m not the only male community nurse that has been directed to some small cupboard under the stairs to read the gas meter, or perceived a sense of disappointment that I have not, after all, come to fix the leaky tap or malfunctioning washing machine. I felt particularly sad to inform one elderly woman that I couldn’t remove the bats from her loft!

My experiences are not unique. There are many reports of male community nurses being mistaken for gasmen, plumbers or even intruders on their first visit.  I have also, like many no doubt, often received the astounding news: “Oh… you’re a man!” which since I am bald, bearded and married with two children is not a revelation.  What accounts for the enduring perception that a community nurse should be female?

The concept of the female nurse, especially outside of the hospital, is very entrenched. In common parlance a woman is referred to as a “nurse”, but a man as a “male nurse”.  Men are stereotypically perceived as the people in need of medical care (man flu) and not those who are capable of being empathetic, compassionate and able to care for others. This may be exaggerated in the community where the district nurse is possibly seen as a last bastion of nursing tradition still under female control. 

Does it really matter? Well, yes. One could simply argue that we need more men in community nursing because that is the composition of our society today. On a deeper level we could claim that men can bring different skills, attributes and expertise both to patient care and the workplace team, altering both dynamics positively. Female nurses report that they feel more comfortable when working with a male colleague in situations where they may be at risk of violence or sexual harassment.

The balance is slowly changing and this is good news. The variety, challenge and complexity of community-based roles are clearly appealing to any ambitious nurse. The new emphasis on enterprise and nurse-led services offers something different alongside the traditional role, which is tempting men into primary care, acting as a model of best practice for recruitment elsewhere. Recruitment advertising could emphasise this, suggesting that community nursing is challenging, action-oriented, and fast-paced, thus acting as a conduit for men into the profession.

Some patients will always claim they don’t want a male community nurse, but after experiencing care provided by one, most will open up to the idea that nursing is a job where your gender makes you different but equal.

Readers' comments (7)

  • In all areas of nursing it is interesting at times to see female members of staff stating that a male member of staff should provide care for female patients, especially when a)it turns out they haven't even asked the patient, who is surprised at this claim and indifferent to having only female members of staff looking after them and b)they go to the other extreme with male patients (e.g. a direct quote "men don't care: they'll flop it out for anyone").

    Men may have different qualities, or men and women may more frequently have stereotypical qualities, but actually being a man or woman (or not) doesn't dictate the qualities someone has. In my opinion, the difference is down to the perceived difference and what that means to the patient, even if that doesn't fit the reality of the individual.

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  • When I first started nursing (25 years ago) all the patients assumed i was the doctor-much to the disgust of my female colleagues. Thankfully this has changed. I have worked as a male midwife in Australia for 15 years and have had very little in the way of negative feedback from my clients. There is sometimes some initial surprise (moreso from their partners) before they relax and treat me the same as they would a female midwife. The majority comment that they find me just as caring and nuturing as any midwife. I do occasionally get some flack from my female colleagues. What I find interesting about this is that they don't make the same comments about male doctors involved in maternity....Stephen is correct, even in midwifery we are equal, and different.

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  • At least you've probably never been called 'sweetie' etc

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  • Oh Boo-hoo! Gender bias is not new, just attended to with more seriousness when a man complains about it. You are treated differently, assumed you can't do the job properly. Nothing women haven't been experiencing for millenia. The thing that bothers me most is the way my female coworkers treat my male coworkers: males are asked for their opinions more frequently, flirted with, laughed at as if they just told the funniest joke ever, and generally it turns into junior high when the men come around rather than the university department it is.

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  • So due to the length of time that gender bias towards men has been occurring it can now only be a valid concern when raised by women ?

    But apparently the real issue for in this is the behaviour of other women in your department (collectively singled out by gender) and their behaviour when men come over (again, singled out by their gender).

    Could it possibly be that those people (note the use of the world people) have a shared sense of humour, and may appreciate the chance to interact with people outside of their own department.

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  • I think that nursing provides many challenges to us as individuals regardless of gender. Female nurses face difficulties that would not be encountered by male nurses, but as Stephen Riddell points out through his own experience, the reverse is also very much the case. I agree, let's have more male nurses in the community and indeed, many other areas. We are all nurses at the end of the day. I have had the pleasure of working in mixed gender teams throughout my career: and when I had the bad luck to be a patient, I have been nursed by male and female nurses. The quality of care was excellent from all. I'm sad to offer the opinion that, if we had not been such a female dominant profession for all these years, we may have been on a more equal footing with regard to pay and conditions as other professions.

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  • Now how many times have I been asked to get that ladder dear and change my lightbulb?Would a patient say that to their doctor I wonder.

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