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.
Stephen Riddellis a district nurse working in Dumfries and Galloway