What's in a Name? To Find Out, Ask a Male Nurse.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

"Man enough to be a nurse?"

That's the caption on a recruiting poster outside my office. The poster boys are no girlie men. In fact, they look less like nurses and more like finalists in a Toughman competition. They're Bluto with an attitude: "Yeah, I'm a nurse. You got a problem?" Just the sort you want to see heading toward your hospital gurney, right?

The message, however, is fair enough: Nursing is a man's job too. But why the hyperbole? Well, the profession is 95 percent female and is desperate for males. It needs a macho makeover. Not to concede any inherent femininity in today's nursing, but historically there was the cap (nun's coif), the pin and, in parts of the world, the use of "sister" for nurse.

There also is the undeniable gender bias of the term "nursing." To nurse is to suckle or breast-feed, and men simply can't do that. While some gender-specific terms merely indicate the sex of the person who performs a given role -- executor/executrix, actor/actress, waiter/waitress -- others imply that a role is best fulfilled by those of one specific sex and thereby disparage participation by the other sex. Nursing is such a term.

If carpenters, because they stud out walls, had come to be called studs, would this disparage those few female "studs"? Consider these archaic, gender-restrictive terms long since abandoned: policeman, fireman, salesman, chairman. Today, it's police officer, firefighter, sales representative and chair. No one wants to offend and exclude, so how did we miss "nursing"?

Some years back, in letters published in The Washington Post and the Journal of Nurse Midwifery, I argued for a name change. The response was negative and angry. At that time, nurses were emotionally invested in the term and, to my thinking, more than a little bit paranoid. But these are new times. We are all more sensitive to the crippling consequences of gender-biased labels. What about now? Some might argue that, notwithstanding its gender-specific etymology, there is nothing feminine about today's nursing. They say "nurse" is but a word, and the meanings of words change over time. Get used to it.

I wonder what would happen if George Mason, my academic home, took a daring stance on this. What if our newly forming school of nursing -- to be housed along with a school of social work and a school of public health in a new and expanded College of Health and Human Services -- becomes instead the school of something else, something gender neutral, such as the school of medical caregiving, or the school of hygienic conciergerie, or the school of health engineering and advocation? We just might show the profession how to rise above gender exclusion to a more inclusive destiny.

Alas, such speculation will remain but my fantasy. The heartless reality is that nursing requires a license -- from the state Board of Nursing. That requires a degree in nursing -- from a department or school of nursing. Until that changes, the profession is -- nursing.

So how do we attract men in greater numbers? Maybe we don't. Some behaviors and vocational preferences are inherently gender specific. Men may disdain nursing not so much for its name as for its practice, caring for the sick and the injured. Why wring our hands? Perhaps we should acknowledge the bias, content ourselves with a smattering of men and keep it as "nursing."

But the only way to know whether it is the term or the practice that deters men is to rename the profession. Until then, those recruiting posters have got to go. Macho posters won't virilize the profession, and it's pointless to talk the talk if you don't walk the walk. Any man knows that.

George Mason University recently announced that the College of Nursing and Health Science will be renamed the College of Health and Human Services. James A. Metcalf, a health sciences professor at GMU, argues in this column for a new word for "nurse."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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