“A Job For Girls”: How Gender Stereotyping in Nursing Hurts Us All

NurseLeadership

One may recall a statement made previously by education minister Christopher Pyne about how teaching and nursing and tend to be female-dominated professions, whereas dentistry and law are more likely to be male-dominated. I shall ignore the loaded political context of these comments and the fact that he was attempting, albeit poorly, to sell us on a policy that critics were concerned disproportionately affected women. The main focus is a widely held notion that teaching and nursing, nursing in particular, is a job for women and thus male nurses are often the butt of jokes, depicted in comedy films, and stereotyped as gay when they attempt to enter the profession. In a society where patriarchal power structures are present in many professions, including dentistry, law and medicine, we as women spend our time fighting stereotypes that insist we cannot possibly compete in such professions despite demonstrated skill and aptitude. But gender equality is just that, equality, and sometimes the situation involves men feeling unwelcome in a female dominated profession; not necessarily because of the women in the profession but because of societal beliefs about what is a man’s job and what expectations of masculinity are present for men.This can often be the case for jobs where women feel unwelcome, it may not be the employees themselves but social structures that impose gendered stereotypes on men and women. The situation in nursing is an example of how gender stereotyping hurts all of us in the profession, men and women.

Just as men are perfectly capable of being loving and emotionally attuned fathers who are not only willing but often active participants in domestic life, men are perfectly capable of being gifted nurses. Nursing is a fine balance of understanding of physiology and medicine, ability to perform delicate and technical practical tasks, and the emotional intelligence to be a pillar of support for patients of all ages, genders and nationalities. It’s a job for the person, not an entire gender. Being a woman doesn’t automatically give you an aptitude for nursing, just as being male doesn’t automatically disqualify you. It’s a profession that not all can do, much like teaching or medicine, it is a particular skill set that should come from a calling or passion. The patriarchal structures that box women into traditional femininity and sideline us as assistants or helpers also constructs men into the one-dimensional figure of the traditionally masculine male. This is problematic in a number of ways, socially, culturally, and more and more, psychologically. The norms of traditional masculinity is highly Westernised, and excludes people of other cultures who have different culturally prescribed ideas of masculinity. Intersectionality is increasingly essential for the feminist movement in order to recognise that oppression based on gender is just one facet of discrimination for many individuals and groups.

This construction of “real men” implicates any man who feels anything other than the culturally prescribes norms; he is effectively marginalised and in the field of mental health this has tangible consequences. If your gender role tells you that expression of emotions isn’t “manly” then your feelings about seeking help for mental health issues are going to be highly problematised and fear of stigma will be apparent. Additionally, if a man enters a field such as nursing these structures may place pressure on him to modify his behaviour in order to distinguish himself from the women of the profession. None of these reactions are helpful or necessary. The perpetuation of gender stereotypes is not merely a women’s issue. It is a feminist issue, for sure, as those who truly understand the goals and aims of feminism will recognise – patriarchal structures that are hurtful towards women are just as much so for men who deviate from what that system has falsely defined as normal.

Many have reiterated the notion that the role of men in feminism is to take spaces that are not feminist and make them so, and in this case both men and women have a role in making the profession a safe place for both genders. The implication that men cannot be nurses unless they are some deviation from the masculine norm is demeaning to women too. It implies that women are somehow inferior and that the profession is inferior. Nurses at present face stereotypes of hyper-sexualisation, being sidelined to the role of “assistant” to doctors instead of autonomous members of a multi-faceted health care team, and treatment as waitresses or hostesses instead of university educated medical professionals. The dimension of gender-stereotyping hurts all men and women in this profession, and needs to be acknowledged. A profession dominated by women does not make it any less professional, nor does it implicate the character of any man who belongs to the profession. The model of traditional masculinity is just as problematic as traditional femininity, in the sense that women and men are set up as binaries when any person can embody characteristics of either model.

Rejection of stereotypes which uphold archaic patriarchal structures in the nursing profession is essential for the development of the profession as a whole as it moves towards higher levels of autonomy with roles such as Nurse Practitioners, Nurse Prescribers, and other autonomous positions become increasingly common. The profession cannot engage with this development if it is shrouded in gendered stereotypes and gender used as political ammunition to make false implications about what constitutes men and women’s work. All work can be anyone’s work should they choose to engage in it.

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