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Men Out-Earn Women... Even in the "Women's Field" of Nursing

Nursing is a field that's been dominated by women for decades. In fact, when nursing societies first formed, many of them didn’t allow men membership.While nursing is still seen by some as a female profession, WMRA’s Kara Lofton talked to a few of the men who are challenging the stereotype and changing that paradigm.

Men are doctors and women are nurses. This was the norm when Rick Carpenter started nursing school in 1984. Although this pattern is beginning to change, Carpenter can still remember a time when the number one question he was asked about his profession was “why didn’t you go to medical school?”

CARPENTER: When I started in the 80s, the stigma, I think was, people would say, ‘you couldn’t get into medical school, that’s why you went to nursing school?’ well absolutely not…You’d hear that or ‘why did you become a nurse? Why didn’t you become a doctor?’ that was big I think back then, but now it’s kind of switched. You could go out here today and the doctor is probably a female and the nurse is probably a male.

His perception appears to be at least partially correct. A 2013 US Census Bureau report found that the percentage of registered male nurses has increased from 2.7% in 1970 to almost 10% today. Since Carpenter first entered the profession over 30 years ago, he has witnessed a twofold increase in male colleagues.

Dr. Nena Powell is a nursing professor at James Madison University. She says that young men in nursing school these days are not immune to jokes about their choice in career, but that there has been a big push to break down the “male nurse” stereotype. That Victorian ideal of “What’s the right place for a woman, what’s the right place for a man?” is almost a nonfactor in modern healthcare.

POWELL:  I think the stereotype of who can provide care and that it doesn’t have to be a woman—a man can be just as caring, or provide the type of things that need to be done in any hospital setting—it doesn’t matter what your gender is—your education is what matters—what kind of training have you had—those are the things that matter and I think our society is accepting that more and more.

For many men, nursing is appealing because nursing enables practitioners to spend more time with patients than doctors are allotted.

CARPENTER:  If you think about it the nurse spends their whole shift with a patient, the physician might see the patient ten minutes a day. So you don’t really have that relationship, which is what I was looking for.

Carpenter is now the nursing manager of the medical intensive care unit at the University of Virginia Medical Center. Scott Darrah is one of the nurses who works on his floor.  

DARRAH:  Nursing for me was two things, it was one, it was a job, you could make money nursing, but two, you’re actually able to do something good with that job—you’re actually able to help people in their time, when they need help the most so it was kind of this two fold thing I could do where I could help myself and help someone and still feel good at the end of the day.

Darrah became a nurse five years ago. The field was attractive to him in part because of the variety of tracks one could take within the profession.

DARRAH:  There is this kind of dichotomous path you can take as a nurse, you can progress in your skills and reach an impact as a bedside nurse—there are also other paths you can take through nursing that will take you through administration, through managerial things, to be a nurse practitioner, to be an anesthetist. I think it just comes down to the type of person you are.

No matter what kind of person you are, the same Census Bureau report mentioned earlier found that men out-earn women for the same positions, even though women still far outnumber men in the field. On average, female nurses earn 91 cents to the dollar that male nurses earn.

Professor Powell says that the wage disparity is not unique to healthcare but is part of a larger societal issue in which men are paid more in almost any job.

POWELL:  Nursing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Nursing happens and is created and is influenced by what is going on within our society.

University of Virginia nursing professor Randy Jones offers another explanation.

JONES:  I think that’s probably a lot having to do with males are going towards the administration route so becoming managers, and becoming head of departments versus being at the bedside continuously.

Going toward administration is certainly the route that all three men, Jones, Carpenter and Darrah chose to take. All three either have graduate degrees or are in graduate school for degrees that will move them away from direct bedside care. It’s hard to know whether that is a “male phenomenon” or whether the men are just responding to the 2010 push by the Institute of Medicine that recommended, “that the proportion of nurses with baccalaureate degrees be increased to 80 percent by 2020.”

POWELL:  Education is changing and I think all nurses are encouraged to go back to school—does that mean graduate school? Well a lot of nurses who go back and get their bachelors degree will move on forward and get their masters degree…it’s all a part of what’s going on politically, economically and so forth.

Kara Lofton is a photojournalist based in Harrisonburg, VA. She is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and has been published by EMU, Sojourners Magazine, and The Mennonite. Her reporting for WMRA is her radio debut.