Men Slowly Change the Face of Nursing Education

    • April 30, 2012

One by one, men like David Vlahov are literally changing the face of nursing education.

Vlahov, PhD, RN, former co-director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program, recently became dean of the school of nursing at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). One of just 29 male deans of nursing schools across the country, Vlahov hopes his very visible position will help boost gender diversity at UCSF’s nursing school. “Nursing is not a woman’s profession, it is a people’s profession,” he said.

Men in nursing provide unique perspectives and skills that are important to the profession and to society at large, according to a report released by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 2010. The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health states that the nursing profession should place greater emphasis on recruiting more men to the field to meet the larger goal of a more diverse nursing workforce. In addition, recruiting more men to nursing can help address a looming shortage of nurses, which threatens to undermine patient care.

Randy Jones, PhD, RN, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Virginia and an RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholar (2009-2012), agrees. Jones, who is conducting research into prostate cancer screening and treatment, said male patients may be able to relate to male nurses better than to female nurses: “If someone has prostate cancer, or urinary problems, they may feel more comfortable speaking about male issues with men.”

A Tiny Fraction

Men comprise a tiny fraction of the nation’s registered nurses, but the percentage has more than doubled in the last three decades, jumping from 3 percent in 1980 to almost 7 percent today, according to the latest National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses conducted by the Health Resources and Services Administration.

The percentage of men in nursing education is even smaller. Men account for only 5 percent of full-time faculty teaching at baccalaureate and higher-degree schools of nursing, and 4.5 percent of the nation’s 838 nursing school deans are men, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

But men are enrolling in nursing programs at a higher rate than in the past, according to AACN—a promising sign for increasing gender diversity and inclusion in the nursing workforce of the future. In 2011, 12 percent of students in bachelor’s degree nursing programs were men, and the percentages are even higher in certain accelerated-degree nursing programs.

Still, the nursing profession needs to do more to speed up the gender diversification and inclusion of the workforce, the IOM report states. “While more men are being drawn to nursing, especially as a second career, the profession needs to continue efforts to recruit men; their unique perspectives and skills are important to the profession and will help contribute additional diversity to the workforce.”

The recent economic downturn may help, said Tony Forrester, PhD, RN, ANEF, a professor for more than 30 years, 24 of which have been at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey School of Nursing. A profession noted for its good salaries, job security and opportunities for advancement, “nursing is seen as a more viable career option” for many men these days, he said.

More visible and more powerful male nurse educators can also increase diversity. Men in nurse education—particularly at its highest levels—can hasten diversification by promoting “diversity of perspective” within the profession, according to Vlahov. He is practicing what he preaches; since assuming the position in February, Vlahov has said he will work to boost male enrollment in the UCSF nursing school and set a new policy to not conclude a faculty search unless a qualified minority candidate—a term that encompasses men as well as racial and ethnic minorities and low-income people—is considered in the final selection round.

“This does not mean that we are selecting minorities differentially, but that we’ve actively considered diversity in our search,” he explained, adding that he also wants to “look at curricula and provide forums that assure that we identify and minimize the unconscious bias that could impede the profession’s continued development toward achieving the highest level of knowledge and performance attainable.”

High-level male nurse educators also serve as role models, which helps recruit and retain male nursing students, said Elias Provencio-Vasquez, PhD, RN, FAAN, an RWJF Executive Nurse Fellow (2009 – 2012), dean of the nursing school at the University of Texas in El Paso and the country’s first Latino to head a school of nursing. “I never thought that having faculty or people who look like you would make a difference, but it does,” he says. “If you see faculty who you can identify with, that does make a difference.”

Geraldine “Polly” Bednash, PhD, RN, FAAN, CEO of the AACN, agrees. School officials can use other strategies to increase gender diversity, she says. They can make a deliberate effort to feature male nursing students in recruitment materials; target prospective male students by emphasizing aspects of nursing that might appeal to them, such as specialties in trauma, critical care and research; and emphasize the many opportunities available within the profession.

Another way to increase gender diversity in nursing schools is to promote the profession in the community setting. Jones, for his part, talks about the profession during visits to elementary and middle schools—and gets positive responses from boys who otherwise wouldn’t have considered nursing as a career. “When I mention that I’m a nurse, their eyes light up,” he says of some of the boys he has addressed. “Many don’t realize that men are in nursing.”

William T. Lecher, RN, MS, MBA, president of the American Assembly for Men in Nursing, cited other ways to increase diversity, such as by using gender-inclusive language and images and using “dashboard” measures that track male enrollment and graduation rates. The American Assembly for Men in Nursing has also taken other steps, including offering scholarships to undergraduate and graduate men in nursing; an awards recognition program for excellent nursing schools and workplaces for men; and a poster advertising campaign about men in nursing.

The presence of male nursing deans like Vlahov is “very helpful,” Lecher added. “They’re in a position to say ‘You know what? I’ve been through it all and can make it easier for others.’”