Time to Retire That Tired Phrase ‘Male Nurse’

A decade or so ago, people were still using the phrase ‘black quarterback.’


It was summoned, as one might guess, to describe someone who played the position of quarterback, especially in the National Football League, and who happened to be African-American.

Some people thought the term was needed, because most quarterbacks were white, and thus society needed a second category of players in that position. Over time, however, and at the prompting of many sports writers, it was decided that the adjective was no longer needed. Perhaps it was because more African Americans were playing the position, or because intelligent people no longer saw a need to differentiate, it was decided that quarterback would suffice when describing anyone who played that role.

It would seem that we have reached the same place with the term male nurse. Actually, we reached it as long time ago, but the term has persevered.

As with the phrase black quarterback, ‘male nurse’ has been used to make a differentiation, as if we need to make a distinction between men and women who work within the nursing profession. There are nurses (women) and male nurses (men).

We suspect that the phrase ‘male nurse’ has lingered in part because this profession has been historically dominated by women, although the demographics are changing, and nearly all the classic role models are women. But the term persists also because, in some minds, male nurses are somehow different from their female counterparts. They are not, and this is where perceptions must be changed.

As the story that starts on our cover shows, men’s attitudes about the nursing profession are changing. The ongoing nursing shortage and the growing number of opportunities in the health care industry (many at lucrative salaries) has something to do with this phenomenon. But men are also looking at the work differently.

Instead of perceiving it as something that women do, they see it as something that they can do and want to do. One of the men quoted in our piece said his mother, wife, and two daughters were nurses, and that as he mulled new career options, he shouldn’t overlook the one right before his eyes.

Years ago, he probably would have.

Other nursing students interviewed said that spiraling salaries and ample job opportunities played roles in their decisions to join nursing programs at area colleges. But it was the work, not just the money, that lured them.

Some have been EMTs, while Bryan Perry was a flight medic in the Air Force. He witnessed firsthand the duties and responsibilities of the nurses he worked around, and decided that this was something he wanted to do.

And now that men’s perceptions about the nursing field are changing, it’s time for society to change its attitude about men who want to join the profession.
As one of the nursing students we talked with said, when he tells people about his career ambitions, there are fewer snickers and less ridicule, but there is still a “pause.” There shouldn’t be.

Women get into nursing for a variety of reasons. They might like health care or enjoy working with people. They may have a relative or friend in the field that talks about how rewarding it is. They may be caring, compassionate individuals who seek nursing because they can make a difference in people’s lives.

Men enter the field for the very same reasons.

Some day, and we hope it’s soon, male nursing candidates can talk about their future profession without being greeted by a pause. Likewise, we hope that all those in the field will be described with just one word: nurse.

Looking back, most people find it strange that the phrase ‘black quarterback’ survived as long as it did. Perhaps someday we’ll say the same about ‘male nurse.’