Men on the ward: The need to get more men into nursing

Less than 10% of general nurses are males. Jonathan deBurca Butler asks why.

YOU could be forgiven for being just a little taken aback when James Geoghegan tells you he’s a nurse. 

Standing at just under six feet tall and with the shoulders of a professional rugby player, the 36-year-old is the very antithesis of the petite and strong-willed stereotype that many have of nurses. 

Oh, and yes, he is a man.

“People are still surprised,” he says. 

“The perception is that it’s a totally female-dominated profession. The stereotypes are still there and it’s mainly among older people. But it doesn’t take long for people to get used to it and when you’re nursing them it’s no problem at all.”

Geoghegan was bitten by the nursing bug after a stint in St Brendan’s Community Nursing Unit in Loughrea, Galway at the age of 16. 

Like so many young people he was at a loss as to what to do with himself after his Leaving Certificate, so he decided to pursue an arts degree in Maynooth.

Nurse manager James Geoghegan, Loughrea, Co Galway. Photograph: Hany Marzouk
Nurse manager James Geoghegan, Loughrea, Co Galway. Photograph: Hany Marzouk

“Maynooth was going grand,” he says. 

“And then I heard some cousins of mine were going to Galway to do an aptitude test for Nursing at NUIG. I decided to join them and got offered a place on the three-year diploma course as it was back then. There were three men in my class out of 76.”

A nurse manager at on a surgical ward in University Hospital Galway, he qualified in 2004 and is one of 5,806 male nurses registered with the Nurses and Midwives Board of Ireland (NMBI), which has a total of 67,083 on their books (not all are working or in Ireland).

Today is International Nurses Day and we have every reason to celebrate the profession. However, men represent just 8.5% of total nurses registered in the country and, contrary to what one might hope, it appears that in the last 15 years, there has been no major upsurge in those wishing to pursue the career.

Professor Cecily Begley has not noticed any surge in the number of men doing nursing.
Professor Cecily Begley has not noticed any surge in the number of men doing nursing.

Professor Cecily Begley, Chair of Nursing and Midwifery at Trinity College Dublin, has been involved in the department for over 20 years and in that time she says that she has “not really noticed an increase in the numbers of men coming into us.

“We do an open day every year where kids come in from schools to hear about our courses,” she says. 

“I remember once we were doing a talk on midwifery and there were six young lads in the front row. The lecturer explained very carefully at the beginning what his talk was all about and the six of them got up and ran out of the room. I suppose it’s just not really considered a great job among men.”

Professor Begley’s anecdote is borne out by the statistics. According to the NMBI, the total number of nursing and midwifery applications in 2017 was 8,696 (CAO, 2017). Of these, 12% were male applicants. 

Since 2002, this figure has ranged between 10-14%. That’s 15 years of stagnation.

“We have to publicise it more and get some of the young lads that are in the profession to go out to schools and talk about it,” says Professor Begley. 

“Put them in the paper, on the radio, on the television and show people what a great profession it is.”

Stephen McDonnell was one of just two male students in his class of 30 when he started studying to become a nurse.
Stephen McDonnell was one of just two male students in his class of 30 when he started studying to become a nurse.

Stephen McDonnell was one of just two male students in his class of 30 when he started studying to become a nurse. Twenty-two years on his passion for the job has not diminished.

“The reasons I went into it are the reasons I’m still in it,” says the 44 -year-old. 

“It sounds corny but I wanted to do something that had a bit of meaning to it. I liked the idea of meeting people and interacting with them and the exposure you get to life. So it’s the work that you do that keeps you in it.

“There are some days that you walk away from it frustrated at the fact that you couldn’t give people your best care because we’re so short staffed but that’s more to do with the state of the health system at the moment.”

He says he has experienced sexism. Although he is keen to stress, most days in the Emergency Department of Beaumont Hospital go off without any major incident, there have been occasions when he has been told that nursing was not a proper job for a man and more than once, the term ‘queer’ has been uttered in his direction. 

Among colleagues, however, he has never felt excluded.

“I think that women are far less sexist than men,” he says. 

“So I don’t feel discriminated against in any way.”

Both say they would like to see more men in nursing and not just because they want to talk about football and hurling of a Monday.

“There’s a divide in how genders are paid [in general],” says Geoghegan. 

“If you’re in a female-dominated profession the perception is out there that if there were more men in it, it may be better paid.”

“I have to say I’m not too bothered about more men in my division either way but I think that it might improve conditions for nurses,” says McDonnell. 

“I think that one of the reasons that general nursing has been paid so poorly is that it has historically been a female-dominated profession. If you look at the mental health sector, which has many more male nurses, the terms and conditions, are much better. They get [benefits] like early retirement aged 55 and so on.”

Men on the ward: The need to get more men into nursing

Professor Begley believes that having more men on the wards would give the profession a better mix and different perspectives.

“The lads who come into Trinity are very keen,” she says. 

“They are very committed and they make great nurses. Men are just as good as women at it and they bring a different slant to things, it’s always better to have a diversity of opinion in ward meetings.

“I also feel that male patients nearly prefer being nursed by other men,” she continues. 

“You can imagine some of the more intimate or private things that men can get embarrassed about or even shaving, men prefer a man’s touch. There’s a way of doing it. Men know more about it.”

“I’ve been very lucky in that any wards I’ve ever worked on there’s always been another man,” says Geoghegan. 

“But we’re still a small minority in the grand scheme of things and like anything else a bit of gender balance is never a bad thing”.

For its part, the NMBI says it attends careers fairs promoting the profession and that its “stand is manned by nurses and midwives representing all five disciplines and are from education and clinical backgrounds....[which] include both male and female participants.”

Geoghegan concedes that much of the press around nursing is negative, particularly around pay and conditions.

But he says that the profession as well as giving him the most fantastic friends and the opportunity to travel has offered him a deep sense of humanity.

“You have fantastic opportunities to see some incredible things,” he says, “a birth, life coming into the world. But you’re also there at the end for people and I know that’s very sad but you might be with them in their final moments and holding their hand and just making sure they are as comfortable as possible.”

Male nurses lean toward psychiatry

3,638 male nurses are registered in what is termed the General Division, while 2,200 are registered as working in the Psychiatric Division, seen by many as the traditional staple of male nurses.

On the face of it, there are more men in general than in psychiatric but when we compare the overall numbers the picture is quite different. 

The number of men registered in psychiatric nursing represents 35% of the total number of nurses whereas the number registered in general is less than 7% of the nursing workforce.

Of the 8,976 nurse registered between the ages of 20 - 29, 831 (9%) are men. Of the 4,861 aged between 60 - 65 239 (5%) are men. Progress? If so, it’s slow.

There are approximately 30 male midwives in Ireland.

The starting salary for a registered nurse is €27,483 - €43,800. 

The starting salary for a psychiatric nurse is €28,122 - €44,086.


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