The Male Nurse

Despite an almost even gender split in Australian medical schools, surgical specialities remain strikingly male dominated. This is hardly earth shattering news. It is a common topic amongst medical students and readily discussed at various forums.

While there is no real consensus as to the reasons for this gender bias, the issues of childbearing and work-life balance inevitably dominate the conversation. At any given discussion, the question is asked of a panel of highly qualified female surgeons – ‘when is the right time to have a child?’.

It’s a question that can’t be faulted. Seeking advice when planning ahead is smart. Asking women who have a career in a field that is notoriously unwelcoming to mothers about the impact on their personal choices is smart. Asking what we can do more to prepare ourselves for a difficult role is smart.

What is not smart is asking so much of women if we do not ask men to do more. It is rare to attend a discussion in which a male doctor is asked, without the issue being prompted, how he is able to maintain a work-life balance or how he chose the right time to procreate. In fact, these issues, which are commonly identified as some of the reasons women are deterred from surgery, firmly remain ‘women’s issues’.

Some people would disagree that this is everybody’s issue. Comments left on articles about maternity leave would have you believe that women are exploiting a biological loophole for the benefit of an indefinite paid holiday. However, if you are inclined to believe that parenthood is a shared responsibility then we can agree that this is not simply a ‘women’s issue’.

The mechanics of pregnancy of course cannot be ignored, and there are some limitations to the childcare males can provide. Beyond pregnancy, however, there is no argument that men are not capable of childcare.

There are societal and legal challenges, namely paternity leave, but this does not reflect on a man’s ability to care for a child. Childcare is not a ‘women’s issue’. It is not an issue to only be raised during a women’s panel, but simply whenever the topic is relevant.

Further, if you agree with the idea that males and females can perform well in a role that is not traditionally dominated by their own gender, then it follows that the lack of women in surgery is as equally disappointing as the absence of men in allied health. 8.5% of Australian surgeons are female. 2.5% of Australian speech pathologists and 10.8% of nurses are male

A common argument about the gender pay gap is that women do not earn as much as men because they are less likely to pursue science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) based careers. This argument is inane because it is essentially an admission that traditionally male dominated fields are coincidentally traditionally well paid. Nevertheless, the issue at hand is not the gender pay gap, but the fact that only 28% of Australian STEM jobs are occupied by women.

There are various movements, support networks and scholarships available to encourage women to pursue STEM careers. Student societies frequently organise panels in which female professionals are invited to discuss their careers in an effort to encourage young women to pursue STEM jobs.

The question that is never asked is if more women work in STEM, what will happen to the men who would otherwise occupy these jobs? I ask this question not because I agree even in the slightest with the Dean of Harvard Law School when he asked Ruth Bader Ginsberg ‘how do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?’

I ask for two other reasons. The first is that if the aim of encouraging women to pursue STEM fields is to achieve gender equality, then there will be a number of men in other jobs who would otherwise have occupied a STEM job. The second is that if you are outraged that so few surgeons are female, but not by the lack of male nurses – then why not?

The discussion is so often concerned with what women can achieve when challenging traditional gender roles, but too often, the responsibility to effect change falls solely upon the shoulders of the women in the audience. Similarly to how we challenge women to pursue demanding and time consuming careers without expecting men to adopt the role of primary caregiver, we neglect to encourage men to be nurses while we encourage women to be surgeons. It seems incongruous to not promote careers for men in primary education, nursing and administration fields if we truly believe women can thrive in STEM. Logistically, it’s just ineffective.

The ongoing discussions about the lack of female surgeons is heartening. There is much to be done, however, and progress cannot be made if we continue to conceptualise the problem as a ‘women’s issue’.

Moreover, progress is slowed if we cannot accept that the lack of male nurses is a related and equally outrageous issue. Ask not why a woman can’t be a surgeon, ask why a man can’t be a nurse. The answer is that gender inequality is not a women’s issue. It’s everybody’s issue.   

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Doctus Project.