Nursing: it’s time for more men to make a mark on the ward

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By Joanna Moorehead

Historically nursing has been seen as a career for women but, as more men enter the profession, the gender imbalance is being addressed

Nursing, says Stephen Jones, is a brilliant career: loads of job satisfaction, a not-bad salary, and plenty of scope for specialising and for work progression. He qualified in 2014, and he’s now a staff nurse for Oxleas NHS trust in south London. “When my mum, who’s also a nurse, suggested it might be what I’d like to do I did initially have all these stereotyped thoughts about nursing being for women,” he says. “I’m so glad I got over that, because it ticks all the boxes for what I want to do with my life.”

There’s probably never been a better time to be a nurse, with so many potential directions and opportunities. And, says Wendy Preston, head of nursing practice at the Royal College of Nursing, it’s such a diverse career, and the NHS needs a nursing population that reflects society. But one of the hardest areas to get parity, traditionally, has been from a gender perspective: because only around one in 10 nurses in Britain is male. Earlier this year there was a report that the number of men applying was on the up, with a 9% increase in university applications; and those responsible for recruiting nurses are acutely aware of the need to attract more men.

In Scotland, the ambition is to have a 25:75 male:female split in nursing by 2030. Dr Heather Whitford, senior lecturer in the school of nursing at the University of Dundee, says many of the issues at play are historic. “If you go back far enough, in monasteries and in the army, many nurses were men,” she says. “But when Florence Nightingale set up her schools of nursing in the 19th century, they were only for women.” There was an emphasis, she says, on the “feminine” aspects of nursing; and though that’s way out of date, it’s been difficult for the sector to shake off. “There aren’t enough role models, although we’re much better these days at using gender-neutral images in portraying nursing,” she says. In many trusts, including all those in Scotland, “female” terms such as “matron” and “sister” have been replaced with terms such as “charge nurse” and “hospital manager”, and the RCN has warned that female-centric terminology militates against men joining the profession.

David Wood, principal lecturer in adult nursing and public health at Sheffield Hallam University, says there are issues about not only recruiting more men to nursing, but also supporting them through their training and professional life. “In the university, we now try to cluster tutor groups to ensure they always include more than one man,” he says. “We’ve also set up a Facebook group called Men in Nursing Together (Mint) and it’s really taken off and is flourishing.”

Why, though, is it so important to encourage more men into the profession? What it comes down to is patient choice: we are all patients, at some point in our lives, and we have the right to a choice about who cares for us. “If you’re a man and you need personal care, you might prefer to have it from a male nurse, just as there are women who’d prefer to have a female nurse,” says Wood. What’s more, he says, opening up nursing to men will have the knock-on effect of boosting numbers generally – and that’s much-needed. “We have a shortage of nurses across the board, so encouraging more men into the profession helps on that front too,” he says.

How nursing is changing

Think a nurse’s job is all about mopping brows and changing bedpans? You couldn’t be more wrong. These days nursing is a highly specialised profession, and you’ll find nurses doing everything from writing prescriptions to running surgeries – or even conducting research.

To become a registered nurse, you’ll first need to take a three-year nursing degree, typically requiring at least two A-levels or equivalent level 3 qualification, and GCSEs that include English, maths and a science. You will specialise from the outset in one of four fields: adult, children’s, mental health or learning-disability nursing. It’s a demanding degree that involves alternating between periods of academic learning and full-time clinical placements.

Since bursaries were abolished in England in 2017, nursing students now have to fund themselves by taking out student loans. As it’s such a busy course, you’re unlikely to have time for a part-time job, so you’ll need to keep tight control of your finances – but do check whether your university offers any top-up scholarships. Another option is to take a nursing degree-level apprenticeship: instead of taking out a loan, your employer will pay for you to study. However, few universities are offering degree-level apprenticeships in nursing and, usually, employers prefer to fund existing employees, such as healthcare assistants, who want to progress their career by retraining as nurses.

If you aren’t ready to do a full nursing degree, another option is to take a two-year foundation degree apprenticeship to become a nurse associate, a new role that bridges the gap between healthcare assistants and registered nurses. Once in post, you can choose to undertake extra training to become a registered nurse.

As a registered nurse, you’ll be able to take your career in different directions: clinical, management, research or education. Choose the clinical route and you could become a nurse consultant with expertise in illnesses such as diabetes or Alzheimer’s. Opt for management and you could, says Karen Buckwell-Nutt, dean of nursing and allied health at Buckinghamshire New University, “become a director of nursing of a hospital trust, regional chief nurse, or chief nurse of Health Education England.” Choosing research will take you down the route of recruiting patients to trials and collecting data. If you prefer teaching students, then you could rise to professor of nursing at a university.

Then again, as Buckwell-Nutt points out: “You don’t have to progress. You can remain by that bedside and deliver the highest care you can give.” There will still be plenty of opportunities to learn and develop, she adds: “It’s a lot about evidence-based care now, which means it’s forever changing. It’s a lifelong career.” Kim Thomas

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