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Recruiting more male nurses would help ease shortfalls, but stigma persists

Only about 10 per cent of the B.C. Nurses’ Union’s 48,000 members are men. And while bumping that number up might help ease a shortage that has resulted in hospital emergency-room closures, societal bias against men in the field continues.

As a man in a female-centric career, Lee Frederick — a licensed practical nurse in Parksville — is regularly mistaken for a doctor.

Worse, when people find out he’s not a physician, he’s sometimes labelled “just a nurse.”

That’s something that might change, he says, if more men were encouraged to enter the profession.

“I think we should be doing more recruitment at the high school level, going to high school fairs,” says Frederick, who works in long-term care.

Only about 10 per cent of the B.C. Nurses’ Union’s 48,000 members are men — close to 5,000.

Bumping that number up might help ease a nursing shortage that has resulted in hospital emergency-room closures and backlogs throughout B.C. But societal bias against men in the field continues.

“I’ve got three teenage boys, and they might consider nursing as profession because their dad’s a nurse,” said Frederick. “But if I was to ask any one of their friends, they don’t even consider it an option.

“But if you if you took an equal number of teenage girls, I bet you there’s going to be a strong percentage of them who want to be an RN.”

Frederick says the health and education ministries, as well as the health authorities and union, need to do more to educate young men about benefits and opportunities in the field.

A passion for caring is not gender-specific, he said.

“I love being a nurse and I would recommend being a nurse to my boys,” said Frederick. “Nursing is an incredibly good opportunity to get a stable unionized job with a good wage and good benefits and to be able to make a difference in your community.”

Frederick said, however, that men in the field are often treated differently. “You automatically become the lifter of heavy things and the reacher of high boxes, and you’re the automatic and de facto security guard on a unit,” he said — all of which can expose men to a higher degree of risk and potential injury.

In November, the BCNU reported that on average, 26 nurses a month in B.C. suffer a violent injury at work.

“When you have aggressive patients and situations, and there’s a male nurse on the floor, typically they get put front and centre, whether that’s by a societal bias, or by design of an employer,” said Frederick, who says he has experienced bias in other ways, too.

For example, a female nurse wouldn’t likely be asked why she didn’t become a doctor. And if she said she worked in health care, someone else wouldn’t add that she’s “just a nurse.”

That phrase is an attack on the job itself, said Frederick.

“I’m not ‘just a nurse,’ ” he said. “I love being a nurse. I think it’s an incredibly rewarding and incredibly difficult job and I find the challenges inherent to it enthralling.

“It’s a really good profession and, I might argue, an excellent trade.”

Harmful stereotypes

Registered nurse Jereme Bennett of Vancouver, a nurse for two decades now working in palliative care, spent a decade teaching English as a second language in China before becoming a nurse.

When he returned to B.C., he was looking for a relatively good-paying secure job and trained to become an LPN.

“To be honest, when I graduated high school, if you would have told me I would have been a nurse, I would have told you you’re crazy, right? It was nothing that was ever on my horizon,” said Bennett.

“It was only after I did the LPN program and realized how much I enjoyed my job and that if I wanted further enjoyment I needed to go back to school and continue my nursing career path.”

Bennett said older patients he cares for often assume he is a doctor, and having to clarify that he’s a nurse made him feel like “I hadn’t done enough.”

Bennett says he tries to view the situation as an opportunity to explain why he loves nursing, given the greater chance to build relationships at the bedside, the technical skills required on the job, and the fact that nurses do often save lives.

“We’re the ones who often first see a patient’s deterioration, we’re the ones doing the assessments … and we’re the communication facilitator between doctor and patient,” he said.

He recalls when he worked in neurosurgery, he was caring for a patient who had an aneurysm “wrap.” When that same patient — who was progressing well and slated for discharge — demonstrated slight clumsiness in one hand, he called the physician. A CT scan showed the wrap had slipped and she was bleeding.

“That’s why I love nursing so much,” said Bennett, who calls working in palliative care “the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

Like Frederick, Bennett said that as a male nurse — who is larger than some female colleagues and sometimes stronger — he is more often summoned if there is an especially aggressive patient.

Being in a female-dominated profession hasn’t proven to be a barrier, he said, but it is “sometimes at the front of my mind.” As a gay man, he’s also cognizant of not being a stereotype of men in the profession.

Bennett wants people to see nursing as a “highly technical and highly skilled” profession that makes a substantial impact on patients’ lives.

He wonders if the profession should be portrayed more like a trade where one can continually upgrade one’s skills and scope. “I wish more of that message was out there, and particularly to a lot of males in society, because I think society still views nursing through a very female-dominant lens,” said Bennett.

If more men were recruited to the profession, it would not only ease a staffing shortage but provide a better balance that’s more reflective of the population, he said.

“Having a mix of the genders is a really valuable thing to have if we’re going to be serving all of society.”

‘They don’t realize it’s a huge opportunity’

John Oliffe, who is part of the University of B.C.’s School of Nursing and a Canada Research Chair in men’s health promotion, is researching how masculinities influence men’s health — men with depression are diagnosed at half the rate of women, yet are three to four times more likely to die by suicide, for example.

But before entering this academic phase of his career, Oliffe was an RN. He had been working in a bank, but quickly realized he didn’t find it rewarding to help customers pursue wealth. He was drawn to nursing, and says he never considered the stigma or stereotypes — though he acknowledges it’s not a field many other men would consider.

“It’s just sight unseen by most guys — they don’t realize it’s a huge opportunity and it’s really rewarding work,” said Oliffe by phone from Australia, where he’s working with Melbourne University,.

“I still think those stereotypes around masculinity and what guys should do for a living or can do for a living are still out there and it’s just blindsided a lot of fellas to huge opportunities in the field.”

Oliffe, who worked as an emergency-room nurse for about 20 years, said he enjoyed the immediate and tangible results in the ER and knowing he could help people. He even enjoyed being paid by the hour. “That 20 years was the best 20 years.”

But Oliffe dismisses the idea of portraying nursing as a trade, saying that could play into societal stereotypes about “what guys should do for a living and what they can’t do.”

“I think we ought to represent it for what it is. It’s not a trade — it’s a profession.”

Oliffe argues nurses are deeply credentialed — “if COVID hasn’t convinced us of that, then there’s something wrong” — and the virtues of caring are not gender-based.

“This is life and death and it’s high-skilled work. You have to be on. You have to bring game every day to this. It’s high-level performance,” he said. “The demand for this job is huge.”

Oliffe said there have been efforts over recent decades to recruit men to the field, and he expects those to grow as the movement toward “equity, diversity and inclusivity” continues. “I think there’s a real openness to having a diverse workforce … because that’s the clientele we’re looking after.”

BCNU president Aman Grewal says when she started her career 36 years ago, there was a lot of stigma around male nurses. Then, for men, the attitude was “if you couldn’t hack it as a doctor” you became a nurse, or people would question their sexuality, or patients faced with a male and female nurse might only address the male, who was assumed to have a higher position.

That has changed in recent years, she said. “I would say we’re not seeing it as much because we have a significant amount of male nurses and our internationally educated nurses, a good majority of them — especially coming from the Philippines — are male nurses,” said Grewal.

Today, the life-saving skills, specialties and procedural knowledge needed for the profession are also more highly regarded, she said.

Grewal said the union, which is currently negotiating a new contract with the province, has spoken with the government about the need to better showcase the profession to younger students, including male students.

“We need to get into the education system and talk to them early on, at the end of elementary school while preparing for either middle school, junior high or senior high, depending on the school system, so that they are planning their courses [with nursing in mind],” said Grewal.

Students need to know nurses can work in acute care, long-term care, in the community or set up their own business and become licensed practical nurses, registered nurses, nurse practitioners or registered psychiatric nurses. “There’s so much you can do in this one profession,” she said.

While many in-person recruitment drives were postponed during the pandemic, “now we’re sort of ramping that up.”

Focus on diversity

Dwayne Pettyjohn, associate dean in the school of health and human services at Camosun College, started out as an ambulance attendant prior to graduating from the University of Victoria with a nursing degree.

He worked on surgical units and spent a total of about 20 years working as an ER nurse.

Like many of his colleagues, Pettyjohn, who began teaching in 2006, said he wanted to work in health care to help people. “I didn’t view it as a female field — it was just nursing, and I personally didn’t experience any bias.”

Pettyjohn said as a profession, nursing offers endless possibilities for someone to find their niche.

“Typically people think of nursing as just working in a hospital, but there’s so many other avenues such as public health, teaching, education, research, government — you can work in a large urban centre or you can work remotely, you can work up north, you can work across the world, across the country — so there’s so many possibilities as a nurse.”

Pettyjohn believes views of certain professions as “male” or “female” are breaking down, and that high-school graduates will increasingly view nursing as not just a career for women.

When it comes to recruitment, he says, the focus should be on diversity in general — rather than just recruiting more men — to better reflect all of society in the profession. “We’re not there yet, but hopefully we’ll be in the not-too-distant future.”

Pettyjohn said Camosun’s nursing program gets lots of male applicants, so one of the issues is ensuring there are enough seats and instructors. “There’s lots of reasons around capacity as far as educating nurses in general that government’s trying to address, [and] we’re trying to address.”

Last year, Health Minister Adrian Dix announced 602 new nursing seats would be added to the 2,000 seats already in nursing programs in 17 B.C. public post-secondary institutions. The new seats include 362 to train RNs, 40 for RPNs, 20 for nurse practitioners and 180 for LPNs.

Pettyjohn said Camosun tries to ensure that its promotional material includes diverse depictions of students, “so that people can see themselves there.”

“We’ll take a look at all of our material this year to ensure it’s a true representation of society today and encouraging everyone to be able to look at nursing as a career for them,” he said.

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