I am a male nurse working in a very busy hospital. Some people believe the two are mutually exclusive. “Oh, so you are a male nurse”, they say, not entirely convinced. Why do we need the qualifier “male” in front of the word nurse?
After all, there are male and female teachers, doctors, chefs and secretaries. But people don’t automatically say “male” teacher or “female” lawyer, do they?
This reverse discrimination does exist and it seems to be more obvious in this historically female profession. For example, female co-workers often ask me to assist them with heavy manual work because I am stereotypically labelled as “strong” by virtue of being male.
These nurses, many of them ardent feminists, expect me to care for only male patients, while they care for both sexes. Do they honestly believe that male nurses are not as professional as they are? That is what their actions say.
But professionalism is genderless; it simply implies the ability to perform. A truly professional male nurse can effectively care for patients and it doesn’t mean he is unable to provide the necessary care. Some people believe that men make better nurses. (“Isn’t it wonderful that he decided to become a nurse? He will do so much for the profession”).
Don’t they realise that it is also equally wonderful whenever a woman becomes a nurse? We need caring people in nursing, no matter their sex is.
Furthermore, whenever we hold discussions and they turn out to be controversial, I find myself in a double bind. If I state my opinion contrary to the prevailing viewpoint, I am called a “typical male”. If I sit back and listen to others without expressing my opinion, I am scorned for failing to live up to my masculine obligation as a leader, since men are naturally perceived as leaders.
Nobody openly says this but non-verbal language makes the meaning clear. If you attempt to lead, we will not follow because you are male, if you choose to follow; we think you are not the man you are supposed to be. So confused I become.
Nonsense, you say? Are today’s women more assertive and understand these double binds? It is likely that female nurses become reticent and inhibited when faced with a male figure of authority. Many times, a female colleague will ask me to speak to a male doctor about care of a patient who is not my responsibility. She asks me to intercede because she thinks the doctor will not underestimate me or chastise me as readily as he might have done in her case. Therefore, how can men who have entered the nursing profession solve the problems we face?
We need to break our silence if we want the public to respect us. To change attitudes toward male nurses, we need to stand up to our co-workers. We must tell our female peers that we will no longer do the heavy manual work. We will calmly and self assuredly explain our function to patients. We will rise up from silence and strike a blow for equality everywhere!
We will try but we will also have to go on being ourselves, attending to our patients, friends and family. We will keep doing our work as nurses. We will continue to make the ill well and give love to the dying. We will do.
We will feel and care for patients and that is equality for both sexes.
The writer is a medical student at Makerere University.