It was junior Ian McCurry’s second time setting foot in HUP’s Cardiac Surgical Unit. He entered the examination room to introduce himself to his patient of the day, a middle–aged man who had recently undergone a heart transplant. The doctor was already in the room, busily explaining the side effects of her patient’s medication. Once she finished, the patient cocked his head and turned to Ian. “Well, what do you think, doctor? Does she know what she’s talking about?”
The doctor balked beneath her white coat. Ian adjusted his navy blue scrubs.
“I’m sorry, sir, I’m not your doctor. I’m the nurse.”
“When you say ‘nurse,’ we ask people, what do you think? And they’ll say, ‘female,” says Dr. Christopher Lance Coleman, Fagin Term Associate Professor of Nursing and Multi–Cultural Diversity. “And so it’s the whole gendered thing, because when you say ‘doctor’ people say ‘male.’”
There are currently 10,406 full-time undergraduate students at Penn. Of the entire undergraduate population, 587 are in the School of Nursing. And out of all of the nursing students, only 37 are male—men comprise a mere 6.3% of the nursing population.
Ian laughs now as he looks back on how the people he met during NSO of his freshman year treated his being in nursing as a “fun fact” because they had never even heard of a male nurse. “My RA came up to me the first day, he didn’t even ask my name yet. And he goes, ‘Oh. You’re the male nurse. You’re like a unicorn on campus—there are so few of you.’” He adjusts his glasses and chuckles.
“When you think of a classic caricature of a nurse, it’s the long white dress with the cap and the stockings,” says Christian Perucho (N ‘17). His Penn sweatshirt, jeans and baseball cap are a sharp contrast to what most envision when they think of nurses. “It’s definitely something that is very ingrained in the public.”
So what happens when men start to enter this female–dominated field? Marcus Henderson (N ‘17) crosses his legs and reflects on a moment when a female classmate asked him why he was going into nursing. “She turned to me and said, ‘you know, it’s okay that you’re in nursing school because you’re feminine anyway, so it works out for you,’ ” His soft voice grows quieter.
In a society that many view to be dominated by men, nursing is a rare field of work in which being a man is not necessarily an advantage. When it comes to female-dominated subsets within nursing like maternity, male nurses often find themselves excluded and stranded on the sidelines.
Ian shifts in his seat. “We were talking about the role of nurses in the hospital, and [a female student] made some comments along the lines of, ‘nurses need to mother their patients, and that’s a trait that males don’t have,’ ” he says. “She made comments about how males are better in critical care, but males don’t belong on other floors because they don’t have that mothering effect.” He shrugs it off and insists that, at this point, such micro–aggressions don’t really faze him anymore.
“Men have been socialized to be more aggressive whereas women have been taught not to be that way,” Dr. Coleman says from his office in Fagin Hall. He tells me he’s heard of men being pulled out of other nursing schools because they were seen as “too aggressive” to be nurses.
Ian shares that he and his male peers are regularly called in to lift or turn patients. “They always just assume that the males are going to be stronger, when half of my female classmates are probably stronger than I am,” he says.
But if male nursing students try to take on traditionally feminine traits to fight back against these aggressive stereotypes, their attempts can backfire. In Dr. Coleman’s words, the male nurse “...has to soften himself almost to the point where he loses himself. One patient asked one of my [male] students one time, ‘Oh, so do you have a boyfriend?’ And the student was married [to a woman] and had kids.”
As a nursing student, Dr. Coleman and his male peers were often told they couldn’t work with postpartum patients, even though learning about how to care for new mothers composed a sizable portion of their state exams. “Particularly when I would see the male gynecologist go back there, I would be like so, what’s the difference? What’s the difference if he goes in and I can’t?” He shakes his head, as if still in disbelief. “I just couldn’t understand.”
“I mean, I would never date a male nurse,” a sophomore girl discloses over coffee. “I think the main reason I wouldn’t date a nurse is because of a certain stereotype that comes along with it.” She cites Gaylord “Greg” Focker from Meet the Fockers. “I feel like a guy who is interested in medicine normally goes on to become a doctor,” she says.
“They said I could become something a lot more, mainly because they thought I was smarter than that,” Antonio E. Renteria (N’ 19) says, remembering how his high school teachers reacted to his decision to pursue nursing. Nesta says, “I think most people think, Oh, he wanted to be a doctor but didn’t get into med school.” Nursing graduate student Andrew Dierkes shares that people can be even more judgmental when he discloses where he attended school: “If you share that you’re at Penn, an Ivy League institution, they think, So you could’ve done medical school, but you chose not to.”
So the question goes back to nursing itself. Many believe that Penn’s School of Nursing has a reputation on campus of being—“the backdoor to Wharton,” Ian interrupts with a knowing smile. For some students, applying to the nursing school is simply a means of later switching into one of Penn’s other three undergraduate schools. “People are sneaky,” Ian says. “It’s hard to pick out the people who are going to do it, because people are really good at painting a picture of who they are.”
However, nursing is anything but easy. “Definitely nursing is more emotionally difficult to handle than a business class,” Nesta says about how the schools in his dual degree program compare. “A business class I can just get up and go to and once class is over, class is over, and all I have to do is homework. Things that happen in clinical can stay with me for like a week or so.”
This resonates with Christian Perucho (N ‘17). Last semester, one of his patients passed away during his shift. “It’s very daunting to be able to take care of someone’s dead body,” Christian says now, his voice soft but steady. “It’s something very psychologically heavy, but I’ve learned to not take it home with me. When the clock is up, just wash your hands.”
Penn’s male nurses are first–generation college students, pioneers of research on Philadelphia’s homeless, members of fraternities and presidents of sizable student organizations. They are snatched up by top PhD programs, hospitals and medical consulting firms straight from graduation. So why are there still so few of them?
For Dr. Coleman, it traces back to the public’s misconceptions of what being a nurse actually can mean. He shares that his father was initially extremely against the idea of his becoming a nurse, because “he also had this image that all nurses pretty much just changed bedsheets and bedpans and so, they don’t do, they don’t think; they just kind of follow doctors’ orders.”
In actuality, however, the field of nursing is far from simple. “We’re in one of the few professions where you can start off on the floor and end up in the boardroom. How many professions can you say do that?” The nurse, professor and author answers his own question: “Very few.”
In 2006, Dr. Coleman founded MAN-UP, an organization on Penn’s campus dedicated to supporting men in nursing. “We were probably the first in the country to start a male nursing group on campus,” he says, adding that the resulting media attention garnered the group prestigious national awards and “generated thousands and thousands of dollars for the university because we attracted a lot of males to come to the nursing program.”
MAN-UP is currently inactive because Dr. Coleman is on sabbatical. But Andrew, who is the former president of MAN-UP, thinks the group’s break may also be because the group indirectly perpetuated the stereotypes it sought to break down. “The biggest function for us was just having an internal peer advising group. But again, that’s something that’s not unique to men,” he says. “There were times when I think it just didn’t seem practical, or maybe it was even counter-productive. There’s not a ‘women in nursing’ group. It’s just called the nursing group, in which case we should just be there.”
“In my own opinion the focus should be on the science, because in a way that’s not gendered, and it’s something that everyone can do,” Andrew adds. “Why are we focusing on male and female when we should be focusing on clinical excellence and excellence of inquiry and patient outcome?”
Ian agrees. “I feel like [MAN-UP] fell out of vogue, because people were like—what does it matter that you’re a guy in nursing?” he says. “You’re here, you’re doing it, you’re doing the exact same work as everyone else is. Why should it be a difference?”
Every nursing student at Penn has to endure 12–hour clinicals, time–consuming anatomy courses and emotionally trying interactions with patients. And on top of all of that, male students have to grapple with constantly being told that they don’t belong in the field that they love. Yet even though these male students have all come across female nursing stereotypes or gender discrimination at some point or another, none of them seemed to be too hung up on it.
“I think once you make that realization that, I’m here, I’m gonna do just as good a job as everyone else, and nothing is working against me because I’m male, you come to this realization that…” Ian’s voice trails off. He finds the phrase he was thinking of and grins. “It’s nothing.”