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A job for the boys - 21st century nursing

Nursing is often regarded as a purely female occupation. But although it is dominated by women, the number of male nurses is increasing and they now account for just over 10 per cent of the profession. So how has this rise come about, and are our attitudes changing?

In real terms, there are now 2,000 more male nurses than there were in 2001, and around 10,000 more than a decade ago. But even though the concept of a male nurse is no longer alien - partly thanks to hospital TV dramas - there is still a feminine association with the word.

A natural phenomenon

This is all changing though, according to spokeswoman for the Nursing & Midwifery Council Kirsty O'Brien. "The increase is a continuing trend," she says. "There is a cultural change going on and more acceptance for men in the role" - a point strengthened by the fact that the council's president is a male nurse.

A spokeswoman for the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) agrees. "There has been no specific targeting of men for nurse's positions, no campaign, it has just evolved."

Certainly the nursing profession is more attractive to men than ever before. In the 1950s, male nurses were virtually unheard of. However, changes in society and, crucially, the Sex Discrimination Act, have opened the profession up.

The RCN spokeswoman explains that, before changes in the 60s and 80s, male nurses were not allowed to live in nursing accommodation and weren't even given changing facilities.

NHS reforms

The nature of nursing is also changing. Continuing NHS reforms will see nurses take on more responsibilities, including managerial roles - something that seems likely to attract men to the profession. Wages are also likely to increase under the new regime, again making nursing a more attractive career.

However, there are problems. Last year, nursing representatives called for an inquiry into why two-thirds of nurses struck off were men and why male nurses were involved in more than half the professional conduct reviews even though they accounted for only one-tenth of those doing the job.

There is also continuing controversy over the fact that male nurses are more than twice as likely to be promoted than their female counterparts, even when the women involved have higher qualifications.

Female persuasion

Both spokeswomen are careful not to suggest sex discrimination, although neither rules it out. "Men and other minorities in nursing do tend to stand out," Ms O'Brien suggests regarding disciplinary matters.

The RCN spokeswoman says that one of the possible reasons why proportionally more men are promoted than women may be that many female nurses have families and other commitments.

She also points out that nursing is fundamentally a caring profession and tends to attract the kind of people for whom career advancement is not a main goal in life.

An even balance

However, the authors of a UK report into gender inequalities in nursing were not so diplomatic. Louise Finlayson and James Nazroo from the Policy Studies Institute, an educational charity, claimed to have evidence of direct discrimination against female nurses.

Ms Finlayson was quoted as saying, "The report suggests that the problem of gender inequalities in nursing careers is more fundamental than shattering the 'glass ceiling'. Disadvantage for women is present at relatively junior positions and becomes greater as seniority increases."

Whichever way you look at it, nursing is continuing to change significantly, but it is a slow process. The RCN's spokeswoman tells us there is a long way to go until we reach a 50:50 split between men and women.

"There are changes that will take until 2004 to implement and then it's a four-year training course," she says. "So we are looking at 10 years from now to see a big difference."

Further information:

Nursing & Midwifery Council
Royal College of Nursing

Link to this story on Discovery Health

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