Is nursing a stigmatizing label that needs to go?

Editor’s note: Viewpoint normally highlights the thoughts, opinions, and expertise of well-known nurse leaders. This month we bring you the perspective of someone who is not a nurse on the profession’s name. We welcome your comments about this article.

Nursing. Nursing. Nursing. No matter how many times I hear or say it I think of women, a baby suckling, or Ben Stiller in his iconic role as a “male nurse” (note the qualifier “male”) in the movie “Meet The Parents.” Personally, I have read many empirically based articles that attempt to figure out why more men do not enter the profession of nursing, but rarely have these focused on one of the most substantial reasons: Nursing is a gender specific title or label and no matter how much people try to change the social constructs around this word, what is really needed is a name change for the profession.

However, would changing the name of nursing to something more gender-neutral really attract more men into the profession? Would such a change decrease work-related gender issues? These are just a couple of the questions that arise when thinking of the impact that such a change might have, but I am sure there are many others. In any case, I hope that my honesty and candidness will not offend anyone, rather bring to light one reality that plays a part in the shortage of men in the nursing profession and the stigmatization that goes along with being a “male nurse.” I do not believe my points are new, but they seem to be absent or devalued when discussing such issues.

To begin, I am not a nurse, nor am I a nursing student. This is important to know because I would really like the job of a nurse; but honestly, I struggle with the idea of being called a “male nurse.” I know, there are a bunch of male (and female) nurses out there that will take offense to my view, but I am not alone. For instance, I worked many years as a firefighter paramedic and many of my male comrades really wanted to be nurses. Sadly, the number one reason for not becoming a nurse was simply holding the title of “nurse.” In fact, one of my good friends and former paramedic workmates was signed up for a nursing program. However, he dropped out before he even started. Why? He explained it to me this way:

“I really like the potential pay and job of a nurse, but being called a nurse…I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. I know it’s sounds bad, but it’s true. I’m not a woman, dang it. I guess I will look into becoming a physician assistant or something less feminine sounding.”

As the preceding comment illustrates the real source of stigmatization for my friend was not the job of nursing itself, rather it was the title or label. Yes, I know nursing is an honorable and great profession that has earned its place in history. I fully agree. However, so is firefighting and policing. Nevertheless, both of these professions had to make some name changes to rightfully accommodate the feminist movement. For example, I can almost guarantee that you will not see a job advertisement for a fire department hiring firemen or a police department that is hiring policemen. Instead, you will likely see job postings using the titles firefighters or police officers. These titles are gender-neutral and more accurately describe the jobs carried out by these professionals. Nursing, however, cannot be made gender neutral by subtracting a gendered component of the word. Hence, the title nursing simply needs to be overhauled to better describe itself as a non gender-biased profession and one that better identifies its role within healthcare.

This is my opinion, but I base it on established theory as well. For instance, one widely known theory is labeling theory. Basically, once you label someone, they accept their label, and then they become that label by adjusting their behaviors around the expectations that go along with such a label. The problem with nursing is not simply that it is a female dominated profession, but its long history of being a female dominated profession under the guise of a feminine word often associated with things like a suckling baby.

When it comes to discussing nursing as a gender-neutral occupation, it is like trying to make the words “mother” and “mommy” synonymous with the words “father” and “daddy”. Certainly, the roles of each are socially constructed, but the reality is it would be difficult for a man to take a job such as “mommy healthcare provider” or a woman to take a job as “daddy healthcare provider.” For many heterosexual males, being labeled as something feminine (nurse) and holding a job defined as feminine is a threat to their masculinity. Ridiculous, I know, but true nonetheless. My guess is that these same men do not mind having a gender-neutral title or label, but they really do not want to have their masculinity questioned, nor do they want to engage in any behavior that would make others think they are not “manly.”

Simply put, nursing has been labeled as feminine for so long and its name is so attached to feminine only activities like nursing a baby that there is little the profession of nursing can do to break down the stigmatization of nursing as a female occupation, other than a name change. Obviously, some men are manly enough to care less what others think and enter the nursing profession in spite of the prevailing stigmatization and stereotyping surrounding the field of nursing, but this brave few are a minority. I am guessing that a more gender-neutral title would be a welcomed asset in their fight to breaking down gender barriers in the workplace and when hanging out with their buddies.

Indeed, it is time for a paradigm shift that only a name change can bring about. This will require that the women in nursing give up ownership of the profession just as all the firemen and policemen did years ago. It was hard for me to give up my title as a fireman many years ago, but I am glad I did. Shortly after doing so, I saw an influx of women into my former profession and I felt like society was beginning to do its part in breaking down gender-bias in the workplace. Although this alone may not necessarily be the Holy Grail needed to create an equally dispersed division of labor within what is currently called “nursing,” it certainly holds the potential to attract more men to the profession, make being a male in the nursing profession less stigmatizing, and make the profession more egalitarian as a whole.

Shon Boucher has a master’s in criminology and criminal justice and lives in Castle Rock, Colorado.

37 COMMENTS

  1. I completely agree with changing the name. I have been a nurse for 40 years and my husband is a nurse. He is often called a male nurse..isn’t that obvious?? He has also been refused by a few patients that have a MALE doctor. He is excellent at his profession. But putting all of this aside..can we just find something that sounds more neutral and move into to professional world a little smoother. If stewardesses can become flight attendants..nurses can be called something else. Question is what? I am researching and thinking about this. How amazing would it be to change history for the better. And news flash..the first nurses were men.

  2. Please get rid of the nurse name. It sounds so unprofessional and you’ll never hear any male high schoolers say they want to be a nurse when they graduate. They’ll be made fun of. If the nursing (? funny how this emoji came up when I typed nurse) field wants to fill up the nursing shortage I suggest changing the name. These old feminist hags need to stop wining, it’s not 50s anymore. Other male dominated fields gave it up for these feminists but now us females won’t do it for the males too? Don’t we want equality?

  3. I am wholeheartedly in complete agreement with the author. I am a nursing student- a male nursing student- soon to become a nurse.

    Like it or not, the term is undeniably loaded with feminine connotation (much of it negative and detrimental), and has been, and continues to be, an issue for me. So much so, that it may be the greatest single factor influencing whether or not I will practice as a nurse.

    More discussion on this is needed in nursing schools and professional nursing associatio

  4. I think Shon has hit it spot on. Men were looked down as teachers for many many years and most were called professors. Even further how many men are in the primary grade, not many I’m afraid. And there are not men secretaries, they are called office assistants. Nurse is a name that should be changed. Thanks for the article!

  5. I see the point, but don’t really agree. Would the author say the same about the title of ‘teacher’? Teacher have traditionally been women, but no-one will think anything negative about men teachers. The linguistics of firemen/policemen were such that the word ‘man’ was part of the title. No so with nurse. I admire men who go into nursing, & have no negative connotations. In addition, the author proposes no new names for the profession, unless I missed them. Just don’t watch “Meet the Parents.”

  6. Nursing is a trusted and respected profession, although sometimes poorly understood. I do not view nursing as female and do not hear the term ‘male nurse’ very much anymore. perhaps this is an issue in some regions of the country and it might be interesting to see a survey of the public on this.

  7. The public will always think of us as nurses. Two generations from now what will matter is how we provided/didn’t provide leadership and direction through the changes in health care today; and whether or not that individual with the opinion was competently cared for during their time of need. Competent to expert care at the bedside is what will matter most then, as it does now. Keeping the patient first; rather than self interest will keep the trust/respect that patients today have for us.

  8. Interesting. I applaud the courage of this gentleman to challenge the status quo. I became an RN in 1978, let go of the cap in 1979, worked with my first “male nurse” in 1982 (a VV medic)in the ED. That has really the only place I’ve worked with men as nurses; I’ve known some from the OR and Radiology. I think that we (veteran nurses) need to be open-minded about something as simple as a name change. I like the name of Registered Primary Care Provider because that is what we do! RPCP

  9. Nurses have to let go of the name “nurse?” Why can’t the men join the profession called nursing. Does a secretary have to change her professional name also? And there are male secretaries

  10. I think this is a bunch of hogwash. Most people use the term ‘breastfeeding’ rather than ‘nursing’ when referring to suckling a baby. The problem does not lie with the name of the profession but with the people who are so hung up on the label of “male” nurse. Those in the profession usually don’t segregate their fellow professionals by gender…we are all nurses. The writer and those he refers to need some diversity training!

  11. I agree with so many of my co-horts. I am a recient LPN grad and passed my boards in October. I as well as anyone else who had earned the title LPN, RN, etc. after their name have joined the sacred art of Nursing. To call it anything else would be like stomping on the graves of all the great nursing leaders who have paved the way for us now. A nurse is a nurse beit male or female it doesn’t matter!

  12. I agree that the title nurse is antiquated and needs to be updated. I am a female and I currently have a BSN in nursing. However, I didnt even start nursing school intil I was 25 because I did not want to join a feild that seemed so feminine and subserviant. I am not an advent feminist or anything, but I do believe that males and females are equal and I do not think that nurses get the respect that they deserve as professionals from the rest of the professional world and even some patients.

  13. If you don’t like the title, don’t be one of us. In my career, the title has brought only admiration and respect from non-nurses, for the reason I am ~ nuturing the sick and dying. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do or be called.

  14. Try asking the opposite question: Is “male” a stigmatizing label that needs to go?! The question was set up to assure a negative answer to the label of “nurse” because it assumes “male” is better than “female” in the first place. What needs to be changed in order to be “egalitarian” is the author’s own sexist attitude. Part of the beauty and goodness of nursing is the fact that it was developed mostly by women, and is mostly done by women. Nursing is an art, not just a science;caring is its core

  15. Question – If one should happen to be one of those RNs (“nurses”) who does not have BSN, MSN, PhD, ABC, XYZ, DO, RE MI (or whatever)after our name, what are we to be called in a new world order that does not include the word “nurse”?????

  16. I beg to differ with Ileen; “nurse” is not generic. Using the label nurse legally requires that they are licensed as LPN or RN. And I’m concerned that you feel caring is “baloney”. When you or your loved one is a patient you will think differently.

  17. I totally agree with the author, but not only because of the gender issues. “Nurse” is such a generic term, it can apply to anyone who provides almost any type of personal care, from breastfeeding babies, supervising young children, looking after an elderly person. As a registered nurse, I long for a title that evokes the scientific training, critical thinking skills and the hard-edged judgement I bring to my work, and not just the touchy-feely “caring heart” baloney that gets so much play.

  18. Patients know nurses as nurses and doctors as doctors. All the titles that are out there mean nothing to them. Introduce yourself to the patient as their nurse and be proud of what you have accomplished to gain the trust of anyone who needs healthcare. “Nurses” are still the number one occupation trusted by all people. Whether you are male or female will not make a difference to someone who needs a nurse. Don’t mess with what works for patients.

  19. I was hanging in there until I came to the friend’s comment about nursing being “feminine sounding.” Exactly what is wrong with being “feminine sounding?” Answer: nothing. But I am glad that the author and his friend did not go into nursing. Nursing is about helping people, not losing one’s self in endless self-absorption about what you are called.

  20. Nurses have options to change their names through education to include RN, MSN, CNS, PhD, CCRN, BC, NP, etc… You get the general idea. These are distingished earned titles, Nurses male or female can feel proud of and stand behind. Titles are important and Nurses of all levels have proven this over the years as nursing grows and changes. Congrats to nurses for obtaining such a distinctive label and degree.

  21. This article is not worthy of being printed in the AMerican Nurse! It makes me question how many articles were not published to enable to share this piece of $@*# with us.
    Obviously Boucher has no knowledge of the history of nursing or the sense of pride that many of us feel when we refer to ourselves as “nurse.” Also, the public consistently polls the profession of “nursing” with the most trusted profession in the world.

    Hopefully, the editors toss the next piece of trash in the garbage.

  22. I do not blame the author’s male friends for not wanting a seemingly feminine-type label. It is our society that continues to retain the “angel in white” or sex-symbol image. Stewardesses changed to Flight Attendants…will Nurses ever change to something else? Given that we have not even been able to agree on the education required for entry into practice, I see a name change as being put to the bottom of the list.

  23. Really – this is what someone with a Masters in Criminology takes the time to write about because he wants to be a nurse but won’t because of the name? Maybe you personally need a paradigm shift and stop worrying about labels. I was trying to be thoughtful about your article until the last pargraph you said women should give up ownership. I do not own nursing. I am a nurse. No one person owns a profession and if you want to change it work from within not from the outside.

  24. “Nurse” IS gender neutral–as gender neutral doctor, physician assistant, accountant, radiologist, etc… . Ignorance influences one to say “male nurse”. I too have never heard a male colleague introduce himself as a “male nurse” to patients or family. Let’s call breast feeding what it is and encourage men to broaden their minds. Proud to be called NURSE for 30 years.

  25. As Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

    I have seen hospitals experiment with using other labels, e.g. “Patient Care Coordinator.” It never works as people then add, “Oh yeah, you mean the nurse.” People would still think of us as nurses regardless of any new label. The OP’s friends need to develop a more secure sense of their masculinity instead of asking all of society to change to compensate for their personal insecurities.

  26. I am a man & have been a nurse for 15 years. Even with a name change the public will think “nurse” for generations. If these men can’t handle the title “nurse”, what would their reaction be the first time they had to provide care for another male such as placing a urinary catheter? Honestly if their perception of masculinity can’t handle the name do the really have the testicular fortitude to handle the job? The title “nurse” holds a lot of clout the profession isn’t and shouldn’t give up.

  27. I appreciated this very thoughtful article, which draws from theory, experience, and empirical evidence. As a female nurse, I have long thought that the name of the discipline limits its potential for full partnership among health care providers. My reasons go beyond the gender-based influence to include the fact that the term ‘nursing’ connotes a focus on ‘doing’ over ‘thinking’ and science-based knowledge’ that most other disciplinary labels convey.

  28. An entire profession should not have to change its name because a few individuals have a personal identity problem. This is the DUMBEST example of political correctness I’ve heard of. Doctors, lawyers & pilots have not changed their names when more women joined their ranks. Pilots are not Aircraft Guidance Professionals. Being a nurse has nothing to do with breast feeding babies. I’d suggest these gentlemen choose a different career, and some mental health counseling might be advisable as well.

  29. I have been an RN for over 40 years. It is a title I hold dear. I was dean of a school of nursing for over 20 years. We had many men who chose to be nurses. This persons self-esteem (and that of his friends) seems to be the issue, not the professional title. Nurses cannot agree on basic education. I can imagine what a
    dis-cuss-ion about a change in professional title would be. Of course, that issue has been addressed a time or two already in different context.

  30. This is a great topic for discussion, and I feel it is a very valid point. I am a DNP student, and often consider the many variables that impact the nursing profession. I believe drawing more men into the field would serve to enhance the profession in many ways. I do not know what the answer would be…because nursing does have a distinguished history and reputation. I admire your willingness to highlight a point that you can expect to encite some controversy. This is how solutions evolve.

  31. In terms of renaming nurses to a “patient care specialist” wont work. When I was a nurse aid in nursing school, that was my title. I have also heard nurse aid refered to as “healthcare associates” Nurses have come so far in the profession, why would we want to take backwards steps? We are not in comparision to policeman or fireman, so that is a very slippery slope, which needs to be rethought.

  32. I do NOT agree with removing the title “nursing” Nurses have come along way over the years and are well respected. If a man has an idenity crisis and chooses not to become a nurse due to personal struggles, that is his choice. When I walk into a room, I dont say “I am your female nurse today” nor have I heard my male counterparts say “I am your male nurse today”

  33. What’s in a name? According to the most recent Gallup poll “Nurses” are the most trusted profession in the nation. NUMBER 1. I honestly don’t think most people ever think of the connection between breast feeding and Nurses. That’s probably because there is no connection.

  34. I do not agree that “nursing” should go. I earned my BSN 33 years ago. I love bedside nursing. I also listen to what most (normal)people say when asked what they think when someone speaks of the nursing profession:intelligent,educated, and just as important, dedicated,compassionate and kind. The new title suggestions sound cold, arrogant and haughty: people more concerned with their own importance than with the needs of their patients. I hope they stay in their offices!

  35. Wow! That commentary nailed it down. I’ve been a nurse for 30+ years and I agree with the analysis completely. I would suggest the title “Patient Care Specialist” or PCS with Registration: RPCS.

  36. I can relate. I graduated from nursing school 30 years ago when even fewer men were in the field. I worked construction as a welder the summer between my junior and senior year. When I told my co-workers that I was going to be a nurse they asked if I was also going to wear a dress.
    When I started working as an RN, I told everyone that I was not a nurse, that was my job description but that word did not define me as an individual. I have since made peace with the label.

  37. I agree Nursing should go but what will replace it? Professional healthcare worker? I think the entry level should require a BS in PHW or community health worker?

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