Practice Matters

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.

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35 thoughts on “Is nursing a stigmatizing label that needs to go?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    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.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “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.

  3. Anonymous says:

    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.

  4. Anonymous says:

    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.

  5. Anonymous says:

    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.

  6. Anonymous says:

    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.

  7. Anonymous says:

    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.

  8. Anonymous says:

    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.

  9. Anonymous says:

    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.

  10. Anonymous says:

    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”

  11. Anonymous says:

    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.

  12. Anonymous says:

    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!

  13. bellaisla55 says:

    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.

  14. Old male nurse says:

    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.

  15. Anonymous says:

    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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