Is the trend of men going into nursing — and getting paid at a higher rate — an unlikely result of the women’s rights movement?
When an alcoholic gets unruly during detox, the nurses at UnityPoint Health-Trinity in Rock Island, Illinois, know who on their team to call.
Or if an elderly man with dementia gets combative and starts screaming at his wife, this team member can help, too.
Enter John Lanning, a muscular man who is a Marine combat veteran, husband, father, and martial arts instructor. He’s also a registered nurse (RN).
“I’ve gone from taking lives to saving them, and for me that was something I needed,” Lanning said in an interview with Healthline.
In some cases, patients request Lanning, or a man in general. They want the security of knowing a strong person isn’t going to drop them.
“People will respond differently to a male who is assertive than a woman,” Lanning added. “And some people mesh well and some don’t.”
Men make up only 11 percent of registered nurses in the United States, according to the 2013 American Community Survey. The American Assembly for Men in Nursing hopes to pump that statistic up to 20 percent by 2020. In 1970, men comprised only 2.7 percent of registered nurses.
“Previously, decades of legal barriers kept men out of the field, and nursing schools often refused to admit men,” author Liana Christin Landivar wrote in the 2013 American Community Survey highlight report for men in nursing occupations.
The nursing school exclusion was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case brought against a state-supported school in 1981.
“Schools are now actively pursuing higher male enrollment in their nursing programs,” wrote Christin. “The relatively high wages and expanding job opportunities make this field attractive, offering stability even during recessions.”
In an interview with Healthline, Peter McMenamin, a health economist for the American Nurses Association, explained that the women’s rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s also, paradoxically, helped open the door to men entering nursing.
Women left nursing to snag jobs with greater earning potential that had been traditionally reserved for men, McMenamin said. Men, who for decades had been given the cold shoulder by the nursing industry, suddenly were welcomed with open arms.
It didn’t take men long to move up the pay scale either. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association last month showed male registered nurses make about $5,100 more per year than female nurses. The research did not address whether it’s possible men are being paid more because they are actively being recruited, especially as a minority group in this profession.
Just like women who wanted to move beyond work into which they’d been pigeon-holed, Fab Cabrera of Tampa, Florida, went into nursing to make good money doing something he loved.
Cabrera transitioned from a paramedic to a nurse because he could make a good living to help support his family but also be able to spend quality time with them.
The three-day, 36-hour work week at Brandon Hospital, along with the good salary, made nursing an attractive field, Cabrera said, even if being a male nurse in a female-dominated profession isn’t always easy.
Cabrera is the quintessential American immigrant success story, but his success has not come without struggle. He moved to the United States at age 20 from El Salvador. He didn’t know a word of English.
“I didn’t speak the language, so I did labor; that’s what we do, you know,” he told Healthline. “I very soon found that was something I did not want to do a lot of.”
Despite the language barrier, he went to school to become a paramedic.
“Where I studied as a medic, in a little town in Florida called Davie, they had an active KKK chapter,” Cabrera remembered.
Cabrera said the teacher would make him read out loud so the class could mock his accent. He says she told him he was “taking up space.”
Of 36 people in the class, 34 were men. After a decade as a medic, Cabrera transitioned to nursing using an online program through a community college. He had no idea the field would be so dominated by women.
“In the medic culture, it is very macho — you don’t even have a lot of gay guys out of the closet,” he said. “Watering holes in hospitals are nursing stations. I don’t want to talk about diets. I don’t want to talk about makeup. I don’t want to talk about men.”
The state of Florida in 2008 launched a campaign called, “Are you Man Enough to be a Nurse?” Billboards popped up around the state showing masculine, attractive, male nurses representing a range of backgrounds.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has long had a program to help former military medics get into nursing.
The recent JAMA article and 2013 American Community Survey noted that men in nursing tend to occupy the higher-tiered pay positions, such as nurse anesthetists. Cabrera said being a nurse anesthetist in a surgical setting is a more exacting job that can attract men.
“We are very task oriented. I know how to go to work, do my job, and I must do it right because I have to provide for my wife and child,” he said. “Women, I think, need more than a task. They need a cause. It’s a calling. They left their kids at home. They become incredibly emotionally involved on the job.”
Bruce Bailey is human resources employment manager for UnityPoint Health-Trinity, which serves the Quad-Cities metropolitan area of Iowa and Illinois. In a statement, he told Healthline that the healthcare system is actively recruiting nurses “with competitive salaries” in several departments.
The hospital system recently expanded its Rock Island campus to include a state-of-the-art emergency department and heart center, and is actively recruiting for nurses as well.
“There has been a nursing shortage for quite some time, and we are feeling it more now in the Midwest,” Bailey said.
As the Baby Boomer generation ages and more people gain health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, the need for nurses has continued to rise.
“The trend of males entering the nursing ranks has been steadily climbing for many years, and the stigma once associated to male nurses has long been forgotten, as they are a trusted resource right alongside the female nurse,” Bailey said. “This is evidenced in that we also are seeing an uptick in males in nursing in leadership positions.”
Travis Grimm first obtained his certified nursing assistant (CNA) certificate and began working in memory care communities in the Midwest. He now works as a registered nurse at the same facility as Cabrera.
Like many Americans, he was driven to get his nursing degree by the desire to make a better living. He has known he wants to care for others for a long time.
And he said most women don’t mind a man caring for them. He said he will occasionally have a woman patient ask for a female CNA to help with going to the restroom.
“But even that has been rare. All of their doctors are males. The paramedic who picked them up was a male,” said Grimm. “I don’t think they see it as a female-dominated profession. I think they just want quality care over gender.”
Grimm said he expects more men will go into nursing for the good pay, the competitive benefits, and a schedule that allows a person to have a job and a personal life. Statistics show that enrollment by men in nursing schools is up.
Grimm’s advice for men considering nursing?
“It’s all about critical decision making. It’s fast paced, and your clinical judgement is key to what you’re doing. You’re working independently as an RN,” he said.
“You meet people at such an honest point in their lives,” Cabrera added. “You get to know families, and see that they appreciate that you are involved.”
And for men worried about how they may be perceived entering a field dominated by women?
“Those people would never cut it,” Grimm said. “You better have a gentle side.”