June 28, 2006 -- Today the Southeast Missourian ran a short piece by Scott Moyers headlined "Camp urges males to consider career in nursing." It describes a small local nursing camp designed to interest male high school students in the profession, which remains less than 10% male despite a critical shortage. The article includes a number of positive elements to encourage those who (like the Center) would like to see far more men in nursing. The piece also shows how difficult it is to address the issue without stumbling into unfortunate assumptions about gender and nursing.
The piece reports that Southeast Missouri Hospital recently held a two-day "guys-only nursing camp" in which "[n]o girls allowed" was even printed on the T-shirts. Easy Stilson, a nurse recruiter from the hospital who organized the camp, saluted the nine participants as "middle-of-the-line basketball and baseball players" who "are brave enough to say 'I'm interested in nursing.'" The students, mainly from rural areas, shadowed "male nurses" at work to get a sense of what they do. Student Eric Wilson, 18, said nursing was a "really good career" that offered good job security. Jared Lacy, 17, admitted that he had gotten "a little" grief about wanting to be a nurse. But the piece noted that his "insecurities" faded when he learned that new nurses earn three times the minimum wage, and that "highly skilled nurses can top out at $100,000." Lacy added: "I've seen how rewarding it can be. To see somebody come in here sick and to help them get healthy again ... well, I want to be a part of that." Well said.
Of course, given the peer pressure on young males, few men have gone into nursing right out of high school. The piece notes that Wilson was able to observe recovery nurse Glen Dirnberger, who reportedly got into the field 13 years earlier, at age 28. Dirnberger says that he would have become a nurse sooner if he'd known it was so rewarding, and he stresses the field's job security and the diversity of practice areas. Another nurse who participated in the camp, nurse anesthetist Lou DesPres, notes that "the salary can be good enough to support a family." The piece says DesPres "doesn't worry about telling people what he does," then quotes him describing how he tells people he's a nurse: "I muster my deepest voice and say: 'I'm a nurse.'" The piece says that DesPres believes the male nurse stereotype is not as strong as it once was. The report then states: "Nurses can be more technically trained and never have to change a bedpan or fluff a pillow."
The short piece reveals a good deal about men and nursing. The aspects of the profession that seem to appeal most to both the practicing nurses and the high school students in the piece are those that men have traditionally been expected to focus on in their careers--salary and job security. The only quote in here that touches directly on the fact that nurses actually improve patient outcomes is from 17-year-old high school student Jared Lacy. And not surprisingly, the angel and handmaiden images that continue to dominate media presentations of nursing--including the Johnson & Johnson "Campaign for Nursing's Future" recruiting ads--do not appear.
As in most "men in nursing" pieces, there isn't much about the academic challenge of nursing. However, those involved do work to assure us that you can be a nurse and a "real man" too. Both the reporter and the camp organizer find it important to stress that the participants are athletes, though we hear nothing about their grades. Perhaps the most comical example of this focus comes when the piece assures us that nurse anesthetist DesPres "doesn't worry" what people will think, then immediately reveals that he has tell people what his job is using his "deepest voice." Of course that's understandable, but we can't say it reflects indifference to whether people will think he's unmasculine. Female nurses don't have to drastically alter their voice pitch when telling people what they do for a living. Nor, we might add, do female physicians, and we look forward to the day when men can be recruited into nursing as women are into medicine, without so much special emphasis on their gender.
But the saddest example of the effects of gender stereotyping is the report's statement that nurses today "can be more technically trained and never have to change a bedpan or fluff a pillow." This plainly denigrates bedside nursing. First, it tells readers that bedside nurses lack significant technical skill, a grossly inaccurate view that is one of the main reasons the shortage exists in the first place. It also associates bedside nursing with tasks that the writer no doubt regards as unpleasant and/or trivial, and implies that such tasks are the extent of what nurses have traditionally done. However, nurses have been highly skilled life savers for many decades, even as they have changed bedpans.
Moreover, the tasks that the writer is putting under the bedpan/pillow heading are far more important than most people realize. They can mean the difference between life and death. Sanitation is critical to patient outcomes, and the contents of a bedpan can give a skilled nurse important clues about how a patient is doing. In addition, making inpatients comfortable can help them avoid bedsores and get well, particularly since pain relief has been shown to be a key part of recovery.
Of course, the standard public view of these tasks reflects the gender stereotype that traditionally female work is unskilled and unimportant. But no one would suggest that physicians are less skilled because they resect bowels or may comfort a distressed patient. The last thing nursing needs is more statements that nursing is great as long you don't get stuck doing what most nurses have traditionally done, i.e., provide 24/7 care to inpatients. Nowhere are nurses more needed today than at the bedside.
We thank the Southeast Missourian and Scott Moyers for this report on a promising effort to persuade male high school students to consider nursing.
See our FAQ on men in nursing: "Yo, dog, what's up with this nursing thing? Are you nuts? (AKA: Why men should become nurses.)"