Richard Wang sometimes gets second glances when people hear he’s a nurse.
“It gets even better when I tell them my wife’s a doctor,” says Wang, who cares for stem cell transplant patients at MD Anderson.
Wang is one of a growing number of men catching on to what female nurses have known for years. Nursing is a reliable, well-paying and meaningful job with a sense of purpose and service.
“Almost 90% of registered nurses in this country are women, but more men are entering the field today than ever before,” says Susan Stafford, director of professional nursing practice at MD Anderson.
U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics show the number of male nurses has tripled since 1970. Where men were once a curiosity – a male in a female-dominated profession – they’re quickly becoming the norm. Why the upward trend?
“A lot of male-dominated jobs in manufacturing, agriculture, construction and other industries have disappeared because of automation or outsourcing,” Stafford says.
Nursing, in contrast, is growing far faster than the average growth for other professions. Registered nurse jobs are expected to increase by 15% between now and 2026. Nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners are expected to see a 31% increase in jobs during that same time period.
Advances in medicine are allowing people to live longer, Stafford says, so more nurses will be needed to care for aging baby boomers.
“Nursing is the high-demand, high-growth job of the future,” she says. “It’s a passion, a science and an art that will always be needed.”
Longstanding societal beliefs about gender roles are changing, Stafford says, easing the way for more men to become nurses.
“Today, men nurture children, cook and do housework while women run companies and serve as primary breadwinners. Walls are breaking down both ways, male and female roles are merging, and nursing can be an equally rewarding profession for women and men.”
Millennials in particular are curious about the profession, Stafford says, and are less bound by notions of traditional masculinity.
Then there’s the pay, which has been climbing steadily since 1980. The median salary for a registered nurse today is $70,000, and for advanced practice nurses, it’s $107,460, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just out of nursing school, many new RNs make $50,000 to $60,000 or even higher, depending on where they work.
"Nurses are paid a very livable wage, and that's one of the reasons men are attratted to the field," Stafford says.
For men wanting to forego a traditional 9-to-5 schedule, a position in nursing offers flexibility. A nurse may work long hours – a 12-hour shift three or four days a week, then have three or four days off.
“Those 12-hour days fly by,” says Wang, whose three-days-on, four-days-off schedule allows him to spend more time with his wife, Erica, a pediatrician, and their newborn, John Christopher.
But the best part of nursing, he says, “is going home each day knowing that I did something meaningful for someone else.”
Wang has experienced nursing’s impact firsthand. At age 9, he was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft-tissue cancer. At MD Anderson’s Children’s Cancer Hospital, he went through chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
“Nurses kept my childhood as normal as possible,” he recalls. “They helped me make friends with other patients and encouraged me to leave my room and join in activities.”
After high school, Wang joined the U.S. Army and served as a medic during Operation Iraqi Freedom. When his tour of duty was over, he returned home, graduated from nursing school, and joined MD Anderson.
“Patients benefit from hearing my story,” he says, “because it gives them hope and shows them that life after cancer can return to normal.”
On second thought
Jarrod Vance became a registered nurse after working as a pastry chef at top-ranked hotels and restaurants for 17 years. Like many men who come to nursing as a second profession, he was motivated after caring for a loved one through illness – in this case, his father.
“My dad had a hip and knee replacement, and needed help recuperating,” Vance says. “I became his caregiver.”
Nurses taught Vance how to dress his father’s wounds, administer shots to prevent blood clots, and assist with physical therapy.
“The more I did this,” he says, “the more rewarding it became and the more confident I became in my caregiver skills.”
During this time he married a nurse, Penelope, and became “instant dad” to three stepsons.
“With my new family,” he says, “I wasn’t about to resume working nights and weekends as a pastry chef.”
Penelope loved her job, Vance noticed. Not only that, but she out-earned him.
“All the signs were telling me to enter nursing school,” he says, “so I did.”
The first day Vance walked into his classroom, he was greeted by a sea of ponytails – a reminder that nursing is a female-dominated profession. He was one of 10 male students in a class of 100.
“We all had one thing in common,” he says. “We had a sense of purpose and wanted to learn.”
Today, Vance works on MD Anderson’s melanoma/sarcoma unit, where he trained as a student. His gender rarely comes into play.
“Every so often, a female patient will request a female nurse based on cultural or religious reasons,” he says. “Likewise, some male patients feel more at ease with a male nurse, especially during procedures like inserting a catheter.”
But Vance says the vast majority of patients view nursing as gender-neutral.
"Patient who initially feel hesitant relax when you demonstrate confident professionalism," he says. "Male or female, all nurses receive the same basic education and training. It's just that simple."
Derrick Ferguson recalls his early days as a nurse in the 1980s.
“I’d walk into patients’ rooms and they’d mistake me for a doctor.”
Today, Ferguson holds a nursing license and a law degree. He works in a managerial role, assuring patient safety and health care accreditation standards are met throughout MD Anderson.
Outdated misconceptions make him cringe, like the misguided belief that men become nurses because they couldn’t “hack it” in medical school, or male nurses are “working toward” becoming doctors.
“It’s time to put those old stereotypes to bed,” Ferguson says. “Men go into nursing for the same reasons women do. They want to make a difference. They feel called to help people.”
Popular culture is to blame, he says, for enforcing outdated beliefs.
“Remember Gaylord Focker, Ben Stiller’s male nurse character in the movie ‘Meet the Parents?’” Ferguson asks. “His future father-in-law ridiculed him for having a 'woman's job.”
Nursing remains so strongly associated with women that one campaign to recruit men to the profession featured the slogan “Are you man enough to be a nurse?”
The effort got a boost when a recent study of 109 students from 37 states found that male nursing students displayed more manly characteristics than males majoring in other subjects.
“The nursing profession is attracting males who hold a high degree of masculinity,” the researchers wrote.
"You're not going to lose your man card by becoming a nurse," Ferguson says.