Health and Gender in Female-Dominated Occupations: The Case of Male Nurses

Article excerpt

Nursing is a health profession centering on people's care. Its historical antecedents, between the fourth and fifth centuries BCE, and including the period of the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, are related to folk healers, and religious orders engaged in work on hygiene and using canticles for curing.

Contrary to popular belief, professional nursing was exclusively for men throughout a large part of the history of humankind. Nursing was usually performed by men during the time of the Byzantine Empire until the time of ancient Rome (Williams, 2006). During the Middle Ages, relieving pain and curing the sick and wounded were the responsibility of religious and military orders.

In the United States, prior to the Civil War, those in charge of looking after the sick were slaves, both men and women, but during the war both sides made use of military nurses in their ranks. When the war ended, women began to take an interest in medicine and nursing, and when "the Army Nurse Corps" was established at the beginning of the 19th century military nursing changed in the U.S. from being predominantly male to being exclusively female.

In Europe the First World War was the driving force behind the appearance of nursing as a respectable profession for women. Through the figure of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), nursing ceased to be a low-status activity partly performed by male and female prisoners, and became a part of the armed forces with the aim of bringing benefit to the wounded on all sides, and this was the basis for the creation of the Red Cross (Evans, 2004).

The women's liberation movement was regarded as one of the main engines of scientific and professional development in the field of the nursing profession, and may have been one of the reasons why men were less well considered in this profession (Osses-Paredes, Valenzuela Suazo, & Sanhueza Alvarado, 2010). Nonetheless, others have seen this aspect as one more manifestation of the sex-based structure in health institutions. This, in turn, reflected the way women have been subordinated throughout history (Urra, 2007).

Health care is considered to be a "naturally female" activity; thus it is to be expected that, as a result, a caring profession should be basically staffed by women. In such a profession men are an "anomaly" because they have chosen a lower status, female-based profession (Battice, 2010).

Following the inclusion of gender perspectives in scientific works, research has begun into what happens to men in "traditionally female professions" such as nursing (Brown & Stones, 1973). Studies on women occupying traditionally male posts had begun years ago, partially thanks to feminists' insistence, since they considered sex and/or gender-based inequality to be socially unjust. Despite the evident benefits of greater labor flexibility, some of these studies continue to insist on the sidelining of men and women in professions where they are in a minority (Floge & Merrill, 1986; Lou, Yu, & Chen, 2010).

The traditional paternalistic pattern continues to favor men over women even when the former are a minority; male nurses have access to better posts and acquire a higher social status, compared to women, who in the majority of cases, work in the profession, in particular the nursing one. This is the opposite of what occurs with women in other professions where they are a minority (Evans, 1997; Floge & Merrill, 1986). Moreover, female nurses see in male nurses more positive, beneficial aspects for them than men see in women (Laroche & Livneh, 1983; Simpson, 2011).

Care, which is the essence of the nursing profession, comes in two forms, basically: physical care (hygiene and mobilization) and emotional care (support and nearness). The traditional role division may lead us to conclude that male nurses work particularly in physical, pragmatic or "instrumentalist" care in higher posts, whereas women are leaders in emotional or "expressive" care, even though, in fact, they both perform on a daily basis, in an increasingly instrumental environment (Segal, 1962). …