Why Is It…?


“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university educator over the last 17 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].


Q: Why is it that some people are so uncomfortable around male nurses? My mother just spent a few days in the hospital where one of her nurses was male. She appeared very unsettled by his presence and expressed that she would have preferred a female nurse?


A: The situation you describe represents a typical example of sexist stereotyping and constitutes a major challenge for men seeking positions in nursing. When considering sexism in the workplace, we often focus on obstacles facing females working in traditional male roles. However, the challenges are no less formidable for men – when aspiring to traditionally female occupations.


Because our society is structured around distinct gender lines, most of us have been raised to expect that males will hold positions involving power, status, or manual labor. Along these same lines, we’ve also learned to expect that females will occupy positions related to domestic/human services, child-care and fashion (pink-collar professions). Statistically speaking, the majority of attorneys, doctors, and dentists are still disproportionately male, while females comprise the majority of nurses, elementary school teachers, paralegals, nurses, and dental assistants.


Although occupational roles have undergone certain changes in terms of gender roles, it appears as though women are permitted more social latitude than men, in terms of crossing traditional gender barriers in professional status.


Because women are viewed as nurturers and caretakers, most patients expect their nurses to be female. When first encountering a male nurse, typical reactions may include shock, dismay, awkwardness, and/or psychological stress and discomfort. These reactions are highly similar to those encountering a woman in the role of contractor, plumber, electrician, or mechanic. Because our modes of processing social information have been primed to categorize professions by gender – most of us may experience “knee-jerk” reactions ranging from surprise (at best) to outright rejection and avoidance (at worst).


It’s important to realize that, while these reactions are to be expected in a gender-polarized society, they are typically unfounded. All nurses (or doctors, lawyers, mechanics, etc) are distinct individuals – each possessing a unique set of knowledge, skills and approaches to their professions. Each has been trained and certified as competent members of their fields and should be regarded as such. To dismiss the qualifications of a nurse on the basis of sex alone is prejudicial and discriminatory and can lead to erroneous judgments about the quality of medical care we receive. Just because a nurse is a woman, does not automatically mean that the patient will receive quality care. By the same token, just because a nurse is male, does not mean that he is incapable of performing his job with the utmost of care, sensitivity, and professionalism.


Male doctors are given more leeway in terms of psychological acceptance because they are considered highly sought after, skilled experts. Nurses, on the other hand, are viewed by many as “caretakers” and maintenance healthcare workers, engaging in more menial tasks such as emptying bedpans, giving sponge baths, and monitoring temperatures and blood pressures.


Because of the sexual scripts permeating our society, women have grown accustomed to being sexually objectified by men. As a result, when female patients must bear their bodies to male nurses, many recoil due to feelings of inappropriate exposure, humility, and possible sexual exploitation. And because many men suffer from the effects of socialized homophobia, males may react to the treatment and care by a male nurse with trepidation. When hospitalized, patients may have to disrobe for a physical examination by their doctor once or twice – but must expose themselves to nurses several times a day for several days – making the nurse/patient relationship a more personal one. Because nurses assist us with necessary, often embarrassing, bodily functions (like toileting and bathing), in many ways the relationship simply “feels” more intimate, leading to reactions of self-consciousness, humiliation, and vulnerability.


Remember that, in most families, it’s still the mother who takes primary responsibility for the toileting, bathing, and healthcare of children – leading to the comfort with and acceptance of female nurses. In families where fathers participate equally in these personal tasks, negative reactions to male nurses are not as pronounced. As we learn to integrate an androgynous (non-gender specific) approach to caring for one another in our families, we’ll learn to equate the role of “caretaker” with males or females – lessening the prejudice we feel toward male nurses. As society evolves toward greater degrees of gender equality, we must learn to put our stereotypes to rest when receiving care from our Florence, or Lawrence, Nightingales.