AACN News—August 2001—Opinions

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Vol. 18, No. 8, AUGUST 2001

President's Note: A Journey of Rediscovery: So, How Does It Feel to You?

By Michael L. Williams, RN, MSN, CCRN
President, AACN

“So, Michael, how does it feel to be the first male president of AACN?”

At first, this question caught me off guard. After all, I didn’t become an active AACN member or seek leadership opportunities because I’m a man. I’m simply a dedicated nurse who wants to contribute to advancing our profession. And I’m convinced that AACN’s vision and mission are solid guideposts to making this happen.

But like it or not, the more I’m asked, the more I realize that anything I say or do as AACN’s president will represent men who are nurses, not only to us, but also to everyone who interacts with us. It’s an unusual situation for me because, throughout my career, I’ve been socialized to downplay the influence of gender in being a nurse.

Nurses have traveled far and wide on their professional journey over the centuries. We have become autonomous clinicians who help to meet society’s health needs. We give the best care possible for patients and families, despite barriers that challenge the best of us. Barriers like insufficient numbers of nurses and inadequate physical resources. We have stretched and matured on this increasingly complex journey.

Yet, for all the wisdom we have acquired, we are still not a profession that embraces its members equally, without regard to gender. Within and outside of our profession, nursing is still seen as “woman’s work,” work that is neither appropriate nor desirable for men.

Facing the Challenges
Men who choose our noble profession still face a host of challenges. Invisibility. Negative stereotypes. Few male faculty members in nursing schools. Male students socialized to downplay their gender. Little opportunity to work and communicate with other men in nursing. Few role models. Misperceptions about our competence and qualifications for promotion. Differences in how each gender communicates. Perception that physicians automatically respect men in nursing more than women. And, perhaps the most devaluing of all, the perception that a man cannot be caring and compassionate enough to be a nurse.

Nursing continues to be a profession that allows situations to occur, like these from my own experience:
• “Don’t let yourself be promoted too soon,” I was advised. “Hospitals have a habit of promoting men who aren’t qualified.” Even today I’m haunted by the possibility that some of my promotions have been because of my gender, not my competence.
• A week before I accepted a faculty position, the men’s restroom became a storage room. “There are no men in nursing,” I was told.
• The lone male student in a class struggled to develop his physical assessment skills because he couldn’t practice on female classmates, though they could practice on him.
• Recently, when a group of us were introduced as “the critical care nurse group,” the introducer failed to acknowledge me, because he didn’t see me as nurse.

Admittedly, these unfortunate examples do not tell the entire story. Fortunately, I also know about experiences like these:
• The clinical instructor contacted the student to ask him: “Do you have any questions or concerns that I could help you clarify before you start your women’s health rotation?”
• “I need a nurse to assist me,” the obstetrician told the delivery room manager, who responded: “Let me introduce you to your patient’s nurse. He is right here.”
• “Your [female] classmates seem to have a problem that my nurse is a man,” the 19-year old woman said to the male student. “I don’t see anything unusual about a man being a nurse, do you?”
• When the new graduate was asked why he chose nursing as a career, she replied, “Because my father is a nurse.”

Overall, the unwillingness of nursing to consistently embrace men as equal colleagues is not a good thing. It’s not good for our profession at a time of global shortage. It’s not good for our society because it limits the career choices of potential bright and compassionate caregivers. Worst of all, it erodes the integrity and ethics that are the hallmarks of our profession.

Role modeling for men in nursing is a challenge, because each of us is unique in his own right. We have different perspectives, values and beliefs. We have different clinical interests. We have different levels of knowledge, skill and competence. Nevertheless, I am convinced that bringing male and female perspectives equally to the point of care will enrich our profession and benefit our patients and their families.

Overcoming the Challenges
So how will we overcome these challenges? Certainly, not alone. We will need the understanding of not only our professional colleagues, but also others who are influential in changing traditional thinking. I say:

To all nurses: Speak with young people and community organizations about health careers. Socialize them to think of nursing as a career for women and men alike.

To men who are nurses: Make mentoring an essential ingredient of your professional work. If you’re experienced, include men among your mentees. If you’re a novice, include men among your mentors. Consider participating in career days at middle and high schools, as well as community youth groups. Make yourself visible to overcome invisibility!

To women who are nurses: Work with men in nursing to model effective communication across genders. Give us directions, even when we may forget to ask for them! Don’t relegate them to the obese patients because they have more strength. And don’t assume nursing salaries will go up simply because there are more men in the profession. It’s the work that matters, not the gender of the provider!

To parents and guidance counselors: When a boy who is caring, compassionate, intelligent and adept in science is considering a health-related career, be sure that nursing is among the very real possibilities they consider.

To those developing solutions to the nursing shortage: Include men in promotional materials and develop recruitment initiatives aimed at men.

To outplacement consultants: Highlight nursing as a profession for both men and women.

To deans of nursing: Strive for greater gender diversity within the faculty. Highlight nursing faculty who are men, encouraging them to include male students among their mentees.

To managers: Instead of questioning the qualifications of male nurses who are promoted and anticipating their mistakes, encourage them. Coach them and mold them to be great leaders.
Stop speculating that men are promoted only because they are men. Instead, assume that these men are experts and caring clinicians.

To philanthropists: Support nursing scholarship programs for underrepresented groups that include men among them.

And to patients and families: Whenever you encounter a health professional whose role is unknown, ask the person, “Are you a nurse?”

As our professional journey continues, I foresee a place and time where the media reports about redistribution of gender demographics within traditional men’s professions will be accompanied by articles that feature the growing redistribution of gender demographics within nursing as a traditional women’s profession.

So how does it feel? Sometimes different, other times normal, but mostly as I continue my journey with you, it feels good!

This is how I see it. How about you?


Nurses Need Support
The response to the question regarding unsafe staffing ratios and patient assignments (Practice Resource Network, AACN News, May 2001) made me angry and embarrassed. These staff nurses took time out of a hectic,exhausting and seemingly dangerous situation to seek support from their “clinical nurse support group.” Don’t give them the “mumbo jumbo” we have been hearing for years.

What these nurses were seeking was guidance on what AACN thinks is safe staffing, not how to “purchase” practice statements or guidelines. They needed to hear from their experts and their support organization.

You let those staff nurses down. They are trying to survive today. Their objective is to provide safe care in the 12 hours they are on duty now. When are nursing organizations going to help the nurse at the front line today?

I’m afraid it’s too late. In fact, I am not surprised that less than 6% of all nurses are under 30 years of age and that more than 60% are over 40.

We don’t seem to understand that executive managers are “black-and-white” people. If staff nurses give them statements that are “gray”, they will make the staff live with it until they can effectively define what is “black and white.” Executives need specifics.
Connie Davidson, RN, MN, MBA, CCRN, CEN
Friendswood, Texas
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