Taking the 'Care' out of Care Work? Men in Nursing

The distinction between "caring" and "curing" is a gendered one, and it is part of what maintains existing occupational segregation in healthcare.
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Nurses and doctors have different kinds of work, but there's a lot of overlap. Yet, we still culturally associate the "doctoring" with masculinity and the "nursing" with femininity. The distinction between "caring" and "curing" is a gendered one, and it is part of what maintains existing occupational segregation in healthcare. Indeed, research on occupational gender segregation finds that it persists less because we simply believe men are better than women (stronger, more competent, capable of more complex thinking, etc.) and more because of our beliefs that women and men simply have different natural interests and aptitudes. This is why male nurses are the butt of so many jokes in our culture. "Male nurse" sounds like an oxymoron (like "jumbo shrimp," a "just war," or my personal favorite, "graduate student"). So, recruiting more men into nursing or more women into astrophysics is difficult work because it challenges a strong cultural bias against their entry.

Marci Cottingham's new research in Gender & Society -- "Recruiting Men, Constructing Manhood: How Health Care Organizations Mobilize Masculinities as Nursing Recruitment Strategy" -- addresses this issue with a unique study analyzing recruitment materials aimed at bringing more men into nursing. The variety of recruitment materials from healthcare organizations that Cottingham analyzed is incredible: brochures, posters, videos, campaign reports, websites, newsletters and more. There's even an American Assembly for Men in Nursing (AAMN) sponsored YouTube channel dedicated to the recruitment of men into nursing where men post testimonies of their decisions to become nurses and experiences as nurses. It's difficult to ignore the comparison with the "It Gets Better" campaign as men share their stories and attempt to explain why nursing was a great choice for them. For instance, in one of the testimonies I watched, one man shares, "If you would have told me I was gonna' be going into nursing, you know, five, 10 years ago, I would have, you know, probably looked at you like you were crazy."

Cottingham finds that a majority of efforts to recruit men into nursing attempt to culturally redefine nursing along culturally masculine lines (as tough work, adventurous, involving risks, courage and life and death decisions). Far fewer efforts to recruit men into nursing took the opposite approach: attempting to articulate a definition of manhood consistent with care work, nurturance and compassion. A while ago, a doctoral student at the University of Virginia, Sarah Mosseri, and I wrote an analysis of the "Are You Man Enough to Be a Nurse?" campaign posters and came to a similar conclusion -- though we had no idea how generalizable that kind of recruitment strategy was. Cottingham's exhaustive analysis of recruitment efforts aimed at men in nursing explains more fully some of what Mosseri and I found problematic about the campaign. A great deal of recruitment materials end up strategically mobilizing masculinities at odds with their mission, shoring up the same cultural definitions of masculinity that push men away from nursing in the first place.

Yet, Cottingham also understands the kinds of constraints under which these recruitment efforts emerge. She writes, "Like individuals facing constrained choice within systems of oppression, the mobilization of masculinities in recruitment materials involves both complicity and resistance." Cottingham's research should provoke us to more critically consider how we balance these opposing concerns. Too much resistance might fail to garner the attention and support necessary to recruit more men into nursing. But, too much complicity risks shoring up the same kinds of discourses about masculinity that keep men from care work in the first place. Cottingham's findings suggest that the tendency among such efforts has been to err on the side of complicity. As Cottingham puts it, "Recruiting men to nursing as a goal cannot stand apart from the goal of recruiting highly qualified and compassionate workers, hence the need to transform, rather than co-opt, hegemony." Reducing the gender care gap is an important issue -- and these kinds of recruitment efforts are a critical step in that direction. Cottingham's research, however, suggests that larger numbers of men are not the only answer. Currently, it seems strategies aimed at recruiting men into nursing are doing so by discursively taking the "care" out of care work.

This post originally appeared on the Gender & Society blog.

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