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Healing the Gender Divide

by Rick Blizzard

This is the first article in a three-part series on gender effects in the nursing profession.

Despite shifting gender roles, patient perceptions that men are doctors and women are nurses -- ask any female emergency department physician how many times a patient asks them when they will get to see a doctor. While the percentage of physicians who are women has been rising steadily over the past quarter-century, nursing remains very much a female-dominated field. Given the critical nature of the nationwide nursing shortage, males represent a critical labor solution. Yet Gallup Youth Surveys still find few teen-age boys interested in nursing careers. Further, males who enter nursing are more likely to leave the field than female nurses are: a study released last month by the University of Pennsylvania found 7.5% of new male nurses abandoning the profession within four years of graduation, compared with 4.1% of new female nurses who leave

Gallup data have shed light on the variations in job-related attitudes between men and women in the nursing profession. Given the retention gap, it's hardly surprising that female nurses are more likely to say they are satisfied with their employment than male nurses are. More useful is an analysis of the specific workplace engagement factors that differentiate male nurses and female nurses.

Key Differences

Female nurses score higher than male nurses on all of the 12 employee engagement factors that Gallup routinely measures, significant differences showing up in the responses to seven of the 12. Of those seven items, the results for two stand out from the rest:

"I have a best friend at work."

On a five-point scale, female nurses score well above male nurses on the likelihood to say they have a best friend at work. This is a relatively clear indication that gender represents a significant barrier to integrating male nurses into the workgroup. Gallup has found this item to be a key indicator of trust among staff members and the integration of staff into efficiently operating teams. Results indicate male nurses are potentially isolated from coworkers, a perception that can quickly lead to dissatisfaction and lower levels of employee engagement. The less likely a male nurse is to respond "yes" to this question, the less likely he is to believe his coworkers will be there when needed.

"The mission or purpose of my organization makes me feel my job is important."

Female nurses are also more likely than male nurses to feel the mission or purpose of their hospital makes them feel their job is important. Male nurses are less likely to indicate they share the goals of nursing and of the organization; they are less likely to feel the organization represents them and shares their values.

Several stereotypes may come into play here. Men may be more focused on the technical aspects of nursing and seek more advanced opportunities such as critical care or emergency care. They may also be less tolerant of the traditional conflict between nursing and physician roles. In any case, it's important to understand that male nurses tend to derive less job satisfaction from their sense of mission than female nurses.

Common Ground

We may also derive helpful insights from the workplace engagement items to which male and female nurses respond most similarly.

Of the five items for which significant differences between male and female nurses do not appear, three factors stand out:

"In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work."

Are male nurses discriminated against by supervisors and coworkers? With regard to recognition for their performance the answer is "no" -- male nurses are no less likely than female nurses to report they have been recognized for good work in the past week.

"My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person."

Relationships are the glue that holds all great workplaces together. Despite the fact that they work in a female-dominated profession, male nurses do feel cared about and are able to be mutually supportive and share information. However, their low ratings on the "best friend" question indicate that while they may feel accepted and cared about, they perceive limits. Close working relationships, which engender trust and efficiency, are still lacking for male nurses in the work environment.

"At work, my opinions seem to count."

Do male nurses feel less significant or relevant than female nurses? No. They are just as likely to say their opinions are recognized and respected. No pattern of systematic exclusion is observed.

Key Points

Lower levels of job satisfaction and workplace engagement among male versus female nurses can be traced primarily to stronger feelings of isolation in the workgroup and a weaker connection to the mission of their role. However, these differences do not appear to be functions of overt discrimination, because male nurses are just as likely as females to say they receive credit for their work, and are cared about and respected for their contributions.

The question arises: Are these differences unique to nursing or are they also typical of gender differences among non-nursing healthcare workers? This analysis will be examined in Part II of this series.

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