If we, as women, want equality in the workplace, why are we sabotaging our fellow nurses? Why do we call males in the nursing profession “male nurses”? Using this phrase insinuates that nursing is a female profession. It is true that in recent history nursing has been dominated by females. Currently about 10% of nurses are male, but that number is growing.
Women have fought for status among our male physician colleagues. We wanted to be respected for our knowledge, training, and experience. Our sisters, daughters, and friends became medical doctors by an increasing number. Gender stereotypes in medicine have been torn to bits. We do not refer to women MDs as “female doctors”. Yet we cling to our gender biases in the nursing field.
This bias is clearly evident in the obstetrical field. In the land of labor and delivery, female nurses continue to dominantly out number male nurses. This may be more design than accident or patient preference.
It starts in nursing school.
Men are cautioned to be respectful of mother’s wishes to be cared for by women only. This warning is appropriate and justified as some cultures and religions forbid men from caring for women. Other women may have experienced sexual violence or simply prefer women only care givers. Outside of these exceptions, it should be presumed that the gender of the nurse does not matter.
The hypocritical bias against men in labor and delivery is especially apparent during nursing school. It is common for a male student to be shooed out of a patient’s room that not only has been to a male doctor, but has male residents rounding on her. The message that we are giving our fellow nurses is clear. Male doctors are respectful and take care of patients appropriately, but a male labor nurse is, for lack of a clinical term, creepy.
I have heard the argument that men don’t understand what women need in labor, because they can’t have babies. This is a belittling and backwards notion. If that concept is extrapolated out to other fields of nursing, then only cancer survivors can work oncology, the mentally ill can only work psych and diabetics only can teach about diabetes. There are many women that have never, and will never, have babies that are wonderful labor nurses. I have met many of these ladies and I am proud to call them friends and colleagues.
As a clinical instructor, I spoke to a patient and asked permission for a male student to take care of her during her delivery. This is not an action that I wanted to take, but what was required of me by the unit. The sweet lady agreed graciously. Her labor nurse went right in after me and sabotaged the whole plan by “clarifying” that this was a MALE nurse and he would be there for the delivery and was she SURE that she wanted a MAN in her room. When the question is posed in that way, patients may begin to feel embarrassed and feel like they should say no. Her doctor was male, which made the situation more preposterous. The student was gracious about the situation, but his learning suffered because of a nurse that felt justified in blocking him from the experience.
Is our culture biased against male nurses?
There is a cultural bias in nursing against males in OB. It begins in nursing school and is reinforced in the hospital setting. I have had multiple conversations with floor nurses, hiring managers, and physicians regarding hiring males into labor and delivery. The push back is quick and strong. We don’t need men here, we don’t want men here, and our patients shouldn’t have to have men in their deliveries.
A survey was conducted to gauge perceptions of males in obstetrical nursing and it revealed that this is not what patients, nurses, or men prefer (McRae, 2003). According to the study most pregnant women would accept a male OB nurse. Up to three quarters of the labor nurses surveyed had positive attitudes toward male labor nurses. 6.8% of men had worked in obstetrics and most said they would not want to work in OB. Male nurses did site nursing school as the reason they were not interested in OB. These results can be viewed as a tremendous positive for men who would like to pursue obstetric nursing. With very little representation in the specialty, men enjoy a favorable opinion from both mothers and current labor nurses.
Social media weighs in on the topic.
I quickly polled two of my online social groups. One is a mothers group and one is for labor nurses. The majority of the mothers reported that they would be comfortable with a male labor nurse. The ones that stated that they would be uncomfortable explained that they were exceptions. They agreed that males should be free to be OB nurses and probably would be good at the job.
Brittany Renee Dunevant summed up her feelings this way, “Women have a male doctor (OBGYN), so what is the difference? If he knows what he is doing, then he is the same as a female nurse to me.”
The labor nurse group had similar feelings. All respondents agreed that males should be OB nurses. About 46% of the nurses had worked with male OB nurses. Half of the nurses said that although there was no official ban on male nurses, it was an unspoken rule in their labor unit.
Erin L. Hollen is a perinatal nurse, certified childbirth educator, and breastfeeding counselor. Erin discovered that she had some hidden biases that the survey brought to light. Upon reflection she observed that a male nurse may have a positive effect on fathers. Speaking of fathers Erin shares, “…if they see that you can still be supportive of a woman in this situation and still be ‘masculine’ maybe they will participate more.”
Is labor and delivery a secret, girl’s only club?
In many hospitals the answer is yes. The new question is: How will we break down the gender bias that we are perpetuating with each new class of nursing students?
Answer: Let male nurses into OB. No questions asked.
Thoughts and opinions? Please share in the comments.
McRae, M. (2003). Men in Obstetrical Nursing: Perceptions of the Role. MCN, The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing, 28(3), 167-173. Retrieved November 22, 2014.