Male Nurses Work Through Stigma to Provide Care for the Vulnerable

Nursing offers opportunities for meaningful work, regardless of gender

Male Nursing student Ian Shaw practices administering a vaccine to volunteer subject. (Submitted)

Recent Kwantlen Polytechnic University graduate Josheal Jessel made his decision to become a psychiatric nurse because he wanted to make a positive change in the lives of extremely vulnerable people.

It was only after researching and deciding to pursue KPU’s psychiatric nursing program that the idea of being referred to as a “nurse” began to worry him.

“When I saw the title, I definitely hesitated because I didn’t have much knowledge or context of what nursing was, just whatever I’ve seen in TV or movies,” says Jessel. “So initially I had some hesitance, but it all came back to that [KPU program] description and I was quite satisfied with what I read, so I decided to give it a shot.”

While a recent article by The New York Times shows that the number of men going into the nursing field has been slowly but steadily rising, the profession remains largely occupied by women. Despite a growing need for nurses in a wide range of specialties, there is a stigma attached to the word that has driven countless men away from one of today’s most in-demand lines of work.

“We’re not seeing this huge wave of ‘oh my goodness, males are taking over the nursing field.’ It’s not happening that quick,” says KPU Dean of Health Dr. David Florkowski. “I think we are starting to see a rise, but it’s a very slow one.”

Florkowski says that the numbers for KPU’s nursing programs are roughly in line with national statistics, with a high proportion of female students and a low proportion of male students.

“I think there’s always been a stigma of male nurses. Usually the health-care adage was, ‘if you’re going into the medical field and you’re a male then you’re the doctor, if you’re female you’re the nurse,’” says Florkowski. “Today, society is still like that. Often you might see a patient in the hospital and a male nurse walks in [and] they don’t say they’re a nurse, the assumption is that they’re a doctor.”

For his part, Jessel hasn’t regretted his decision to go into nursing. These days, Jessel is a member of the Surrey Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team and works with Surrey’s homeless population, providing outreach nursing services. His duties vary from day to day, but they typically include medication defence, injections, doctor drop-ins, outreach visits where he sees to the physical and mental well being of the client, and naloxone and harm reduction training. It’s a difficult and demanding job, but it provides Jessel with a tremendous amount of satisfaction.

“If you’re working with a vulnerable population, sometimes it’s not how you plan your day to be, so you always have to be adaptable and flexible,” says Jessel. “You got to be able to change things up, but you also have to be able to stay on a structured plan because your whole day’s going to get away from you.”

While a few of the social workers on the ACT team are men, Jessel is currently the only male nurse working there. This, however, is nothing new to him—for most of Jessel’s time at KPU, he had only five male peers in the psychiatric nursing program, with one more joining towards the end.

“Whenever I tell someone I’m in nursing, I usually get a pause or sometimes a smile or a confused look, and then I describe to them what I do and what psychiatric nursing is,” says Jessel. “And then they really understand. They’re like ‘Oh, okay. I never would have thought that’d be nursing. That sounds like it would be a completely different career.’”

KPU psychiatric nursing instructor Tess Kroeker first became interested in the field in 1992. While he was initially interested in becoming a guidance counselor, he discovered that the “nuts and bolts” of psychiatric nursing were very similar to those of guidance counseling. Aspects of the job, such as counseling, group therapy, and communication, that had interested him were all present in psychiatric nursing, so he saw the path of a nurse as a more efficient way to help people the way he wanted.

“Back in the day when my grandparents found out what I was doing, they would say ‘oh, our grandson’s a male nurse,’ because that was something that was foreign to them,” says Kroeker. “I know that just generally speaking … with people in my extended community, over the years their eyebrows didn’t reach the same peak as they did years before.”

Kroeker and Florkowski both agree that one of the major selling points of nursing as a career choice, be it for a man or for a woman, is that the job is actually several jobs requiring very different skills and offering very different experiences, all with the unifying themes of care and compassion. Someone seeking high adrenaline will find all they can handle as an emergency nurse. Someone who prefers long sessions and high concentration would be well suited as an operating room nurse. Those who want to provide comfort to people at the end of their lives can get into palliative nursing.

“You name it, there’s something for you to go into,” says Florkowski. “I think the diversity of the career is something to promote. It’s a good, stable job with lots of challenges and lots of opportunity.”

Kroeker agrees, explaining that nursing requires “a general interest in people, an interest in wanting to be a part of improving people’s lives … but there’s also the challenge of the medical knowledge and the skill based pieces of it.”

While change occurs slowly, the stigma faced by men in nursing careers is disappearing. Kroeker credits the age of social media and connectedness for providing the public with a better idea of what nursing as a profession truly involves. Changing social attitudes are also helping the ideas of “men’s work” and “woman’s work” to fade away.

“It’s slow,” says Jessel. “I wouldn’t say [the stigma] is going to be gone right away, but from all my experiences through school and now working, all my experiences have been quite positive and everyone has been welcoming, so I haven’t really felt the stigma.”