UTS smashing stereotypes: why nursing is for men, too

19 January, 2016

UTS is leading the way on gender diversity in the nursing profession, with men accounting for one in five enrolments in the Bachelor of Nursing degree. Only one in 10 of the nation’s nurses is male.

Male nursing students and industry experts recently came together at UTS to share their experiences, discuss the entry barriers to nursing for men and debunk some myths about the role of men in nursing. The Men in Nursing event featured three high-profile panellists who reflected on their diverse and rewarding nursing experiences in Australia and other parts of the world.

The event was the brainchild of two UTS nursing undergraduate students, Jake McDonald and Shak Nadesanathan, who pitched their idea to the Director of Postgraduate Nursing Studies, Caleb Ferguson. The pair wanted to raise awareness about nursing as a rewarding career path for male high school leavers considering a career in health.

Before the event, Ferguson, McDonald and Nadesanathan reflected on the challenges and opportunities facing men in nursing on 2ser's Think:Health program.

"A lot of men don't really see nursing as a career for them during high school because, you know, it’s always been talked about as a woman’s job," said McDonald.

Both McDonald and Nadesanathan began their tertiary studies in other degrees, before transferring to nursing at UTS.

"I feel like we kind of underestimated nursing," said McDonald. "We didn’t really think about it.

"At the time we thought medical science sounded cool, but once you go through the nursing course and you actually start to explore and experience nursing, you think, well, this is actually really practical – it's useful."

Both young men encountered prejudice and Nadesanathan said his male peers at high school did not consider nursing as a potential career path.

"While [I was] in high school, I never thought I’d be doing nursing – because of the stereotypes … but once you get to university you realise that in any career, your gender doesn’t matter," he said.

"Nursing is great. There are a lot of fields to explore and we have the clinical placements to find out what areas we’re most interested in."

At the Men in Nursing event, three panellists reflected on their diverse and rewarding experiences working as nurses in Australia as well as other countries.

Educational consultant Paul Rutten, from the Northern Sydney Local Health District, completed his nursing degree as a mature-age student in 2006.

"I started at 31 and decided that I needed a career – I needed a quality piece of paper in my back pocket that would say, I am a nurse, and I can do this job."

Rutten began his career in Royal North Shore Hospital’s cardiology unit, before working in neurosurgical intensive care. After completing a postgraduate degree and becoming a clinical nurse specialist, Rutten worked in theatre during emergency trauma surgery. He now helps registered nurses to become advanced practitioners in a range of specialty areas.

Fellow panellist Mark Kearin, from the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association, has worked as a registered nurse for 35 years and knew from the age of 16 that he wanted to do something different. His first experience in a hospital came when his father fell ill and the family travelled from Gosford to St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst.

"The first time I walked into the cardiac ward, I felt at home – it was where I needed to be," Kearin said.

"My father was there for six weeks. In the meantime I applied for every hospital I could find to become a nurse."

Kearin said five out of the seven hospitals he approached didn't take males at the time, but he was accepted by his local hospital at Gosford in 1978.

"I told my mother, who was a nurse, and she was horrified that I'd given up my career in banking. My father and my grandmother were totally supportive. Six weeks after I started, my mother told me 'you're shining – you've made the right choice'."

Wayne Varndell is a clinical nurse consultant at Prince of Wales Hospital emergency department and said he relished the travel opportunities that had come with his nursing career.

"You can be anywhere and go anywhere – your career can be as diverse as you want it to be. I’ve worked in Germany, France, Italy, Canada, Alaska, California and Australia. With your degree, and your accumulated hours and experience, you can pick your postcode and your country for work."

The panel reflected on the persistence of some negative stereotypes of male nurses. Some cultural prejudices remain, including the assumption that male nurses are somehow more effeminate or less masculine. Male nurses also occasionally encounter prejudice from colleagues who question their ability to empathise with patients.

"We need a more positive approach to cultural and gender diversity in nursing. We have to work on getting that balance right," said Kearin.

Part of the solution is addressing the misrepresentation of male nurses in popular culture. In 2012-13, Ferguson, in conjunction with Western Sydney University, researched the depictions of male nurses on television.

"We found that TV series like Private Practice reinforced stereotypes of male nurses: being a med school dropout, a doctor’s handmaiden, a kind of feminine homosexual character or a prop minority character with a bit of humour added to it. There weren’t many accurate portrayals in the TV series we looked at. There’s a real need to show men in nursing as skilled professionals, equal to their female counterparts."

Statistics indicate male nurses are better represented in departments such as mental health (33 per cent), critical care and emergency (14 per cent) and management (13 per cent). Across the board, however, there remains a clear need to encourage more young men to consider nursing as a career.