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Healing the Gender Divide in Nursing: Part III

Healing the Gender Divide in Nursing: Part III

by Rick Blizzard

This is the third article in a series on gender effects in the nursing profession.

Historically, many professions have been gender-stereotyped as appropriate for men only. As flagrant gender barriers were lowered, women encountered numerous, more subtle obstacles to success and advancement. The reverse appears to be true for men in the traditionally female-dominated profession of nursing.

Friendship as an Indication of Integration Into the Workplace

According to Gallup's employee engagement research, the single, largest engagement differentiator between male and female nurses is having a best friend at work (see Related Items). Male nurses and female nurses exhibit similar responses to items relating to the day-to-day aspects of the job, such as having the opportunity to do what they do best every day, knowing what is expected of them at work, and having the materials and equipment to do their jobs right. So on the surface, it seems that the most formidable barrier to reducing male nurse turnover is poor integration of male nurses into the social structure of the nursing profession.

Lack of social integration can result in feelings of isolation and alienation from other staff members, leading to dissatisfaction and turnover. Today's workplace environment makes this problem difficult to overcome. Female nurses who are established and comfortable within their roles may view new nurses, male or female, as intruders and resist integrating them within their workgroups. And there may be barriers specific to the easy integration of men to the nursing staff -- their uncommon status may make it more difficult to achieve the trust and acceptance of their peers, for example, or they hesitate to form close relationships with their predominantly female colleagues in order to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

For nursing management, overcoming these barriers is critical to reducing turnover among male nurses. Particular emphasis must be placed on finding techniques for building an atmosphere in which friendships can, and are expected to, occur. One good approach may be to foster group activities.

Differences in Mission Perspective

In the tradition of Florence Nightingale, the nursing role has been seen as one of caring, empathy, and service-orientation -- qualities typically seen as more characteristic of women. While this tradition encourages high levels commitment overall among nurses, male nurses do not necessarily identify with it as strongly as their female counterparts -- a potential barrier to attracting and retaining men to nursing.

Gender stereotypes promote the idea that men should be oriented toward technology, and we see this gravitation among many male nurses. The stereotypical man also suppresses his emotions more often than women, and employment in a female-dominated profession places even greater pressure on male nurses to exhibit their masculinity. The mission of caring tends to conflict with the male tendency to focus on technology over human relationships, and to control their emotions.

The nursing industry cannot abdicate its mission of caring in order to better attract and retain male nurses. But this mission must be made more relevant and acceptable to men. Selecting men for more technical nursing positions is one possible strategy for success.

Key Points

The situation among nurses is an extreme example of broader gender-role conflicts still inherent in Western society. The problem is not so much overt discrimination as gender-role confusion and misunderstanding caused by subtle behavioral differences. It's easy to say that these issues will work themselves out in the long term, but as John Maynard Keynes said, "In the long run, we'll all be dead." Nurse staffing issues are critical today, so these problems must be addressed in the short term. One of the keys is simply to recognize and understand gender differences -- and use them to enhance the workplace rather than detract from it.

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