The men with their fingers on the pulse

April 14, 2000

Improvedcareer prospects and the ability to show a caring side are turning men to nursing. Claire Sanders reports.

Jonathan Shaw was attracted to nursing by the prospect of a structured career. After 19 years of a "DIY career" as a laboratory technician, and with a family to support, he wanted a job with security.

Mr Shaw is a nursing student on an accelerated course for graduates at Manchester University. He is one of the growing number of men enrolling at universities to study nursing. In 1990, 8.4 per cent of registered nurses were men and the majority of the 50,815 male nurses worked in mental health. By 1999, after a rise, slow but steady, men accounted for 9.5 per cent of nurses and 60,125 male nurses were working in a range of fields. Male nurses even feature in soaps, such as Martin Platt in Coronation Street and the plethora of male nurses in hospital dramas.

Tony Butterworth, pro vice-chancellor and former dean of nursing at Manchester University, says: "It is certainly true that as Project 2000 brought nursing education into universities, it also brought in more male students. The question is why."

Kevin Henshall provides a partial answer. He will complete his nursing degree at Manchester in 2002. "I have thoroughly enjoyed the academic side of the course," he says. "And I can see myself back in academia teaching nursing in the years ahead. The course is invaluable because I have been able to push myself in certain areas."

Keen to work in acute settings, he was the first student nurse to go on an advanced course on cardiac life-support, normally designed for qualified nurses and junior doctors.

Professor Butterworth also argues that men are no longer ashamed to own up to being good at caring. "I enjoy being with people," says Mr Henshall. "I know it sounds very soft, but I enjoy making a difference." He also admits to worrying about the emotional interest. "There are so many firsts in nursing, your first sudden death, for example. You have patients you remember, who leave their mark."

But the rise of the male nurse has brought its tensions. One male student, who did not want to be named, recounted being excluded from the consulting room in a breast clinic. "I saw it as an educational issue," he says. "The exclusion meant I learnt less. You would never have a female student nurse excluded from parts of a male urology ward."

The achievements of some male nurses have also brought problems. A 1998 report by the Policy Studies Institute, Gender Inequalities in Nursing Careers, found that men were significantly more likely to be found in higher grades than female nurses. Male nurses were also more likely than female nurses to report that they expected to be in a better job in the near future. Those female nurses who were in senior positions were considerably better qualified than their male counterparts. The report said: "The structures within organisations that penalise part-time work and career breaks from employment adversely impact to an unjustifiable extent on the careers of those who are unable, or unwilling, to work full-time hours, or who have had interrupted employment." It also stressed that women and men had the same career aspirations.

Jonathon Fyfe is studying for a nursing diploma at Queen's University, Belfast. "There is resentment among women nurses that the men get all the best jobs," he says. "And it does seem to me that men go up the ladder more quickly."

Jason Boyce, a diploma student at the University of Wales, Swansea, says:

"There is a negative attitude among a lot of the qualified staff that just because I am a man I will head straight into management. That annoys me because it is not what I am interested in. I want to stay on the wards."

But the majority of male nurses interviewed for this article were, in fact, interested in climbing the career ladder quickly - whether it was into management, academia or one of the new nurse consultant jobs on the wards.

It seems male nurses are also disciplined more often than their female counterparts. About half of all cases heard before the professional conduct committee of the United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting involve male nurses, and about half of these involve male nurses working in mental health.

A 1994 report on mental-health nursing recommended that the UKCC "investigates and reports on the disproportionate numbers of disciplinary cases which involve male nurses and female patients". The UKCC has since produced two sets of guidelines.

Male nurses are aware of these issues - most particularly in relation to children. Ivan Mayland is studying for a nursing diploma at Keele University. "I have worked for years with kids as a youth and community worker, but I wouldn't do it now. I have done some placements involving children as part of my course and on one occasion I overheard parents remark about another male nurse that he shouldn't be allowed to work with babies. It makes you feel as if all men are dodgy - I find it upsetting."

The nurses I spoke to are thoroughly enjoying their courses - despite the strain in some cases of supporting families on inadequate bursaries and of having to work weekends and evenings to pay their way.

Jonathan Clark, a degree student at Manchester, says: "Nursing now offers such wonderful opportunities - for men and women. On the fourth year of my course I will study prescribing and that is a highly contentious issue - there are women who have been nursing for 30 years who are not allowed to do it. Things are changing for everybody."

While some male students have met resentment, all have mentioned the camaraderie and support on the wards. Chris Jepson, another diploma student at Keele, says: "I have had support all the way from the women on the wards. I'm really looking forward to going in tomorrow - and there aren't many jobs you can say that about."

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