Nursing: An equal opportunity profession?

This blog was written by Professor David Thompson, Professor of Nursing at Queen’s University, Belfast, Dr Barry Quinn, Senior Lecturer in Nursing at Queen’s University Belfast, and Professor Roger Watson, Professor of Nursing at the University of Hull.

The Nursing Now campaign in conjunction with the International Council of Nurses (ICN) and the World Health Organization (WHO), supported by the Burdett Trust for Nursing, aims to improve health by raising the status and profile of nursing.

Nurses are at the heart of most health teams, playing a crucial role in health promotion, disease prevention, and treatment. It is critical to invest in their recruitment, education, improved working conditions and leadership and by doing so countries can achieve the triple impact of improving health, promoting gender equality, and supporting economic growth.

The State of the World’s Nursing report (WHO with ICN and Nursing Now, 2020), provides detailed analyses of the needs for supporting the diverse global nursing workforce of nearly 28 million individuals. Nurses and midwives constitute more than half of the health workforce in many countries, and these professions remain largely female-dominated. Men continue to comprise only a small percentage – around 10% (ranging from 5% in the Western Pacific region to 24% in Africa) – of the global nursing workforce.

The number of men in nursing remains low despite efforts to attract them into the profession. Addressing this disparity is important if the health care workforce is to reflect the diversity of the general population especially in the context of today’s changing sociocultural and health care landscapes.

Nursing is seen predominantly as “women’s work”, yet it was men serving under monastic orders or in the military who provided care for the poor, sick or injured and the first nursing school in the world started as far back as 250 BC in India was for men only (Ross, 2017). While men appear to view nursing as a worthwhile career, they perceive a strong societal link between nursing and femininity, and their role expectations are influenced by sociocultural views, professional acceptance and patient/family perceptions (Smith et al, 2020), which often serve as a deterrent.

There is growing recognition of the under-representation of men in nursing and increasing efforts to address it, with recruitment drives, rebranding of nursing as gender-neutral, as well as early (pre-school) education and outreach initiatives (Thompson et al., 2020). But we need to understand the reasons for high attrition rates among male nursing students and the reality of nursing for men.

The nursing profession, as with any other, should reflect the whole of society, with equal opportunities for entrance and career progression. This is currently not the case in nursing, inasmuch as men tend not to enter the profession and women tend not to be promoted as quickly as their male counterparts. The implications of these gendered trends, along with those of race and sexuality, need to be explored and addressed to make nursing a profession of truly equal opportunity.


Crisp, N. (2018). Nursing Now – why nurses and midwives will be even more important and influential in the future. International Nursing Review, 65(2), 145-147.

Crisp, N., & Iro, E. (2018). Nursing Now campaign: raising the status of nurses. Lancet, 391(10124), 920-921.

Ross, D. (2017). Challenges for men in a female dominated environment. Links to Health and Social Care, 2(1), 4-20.

Smith, C. M., Lane, S. H., Brackney, D. E., & Horne, C. E. (2020). Role expectations and workplace relations experienced by men in nursing: A qualitative study through an interpretive description lens. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 76(5), 1211-1220. DOI: 10.1111/jan.14330.

Thompson DR, Quinn B, Watson R. (2020). Getting more men into nursing: an urgent priority (too little, too late). Journal of Nursing Management, 28(7), 1463-1464. DOI: 10.1111/jonm.1302

World Health Organization (2016). Global strategic directions for strengthening nursing and midwifery 2016-2020. WHO, Geneva.

World Health Organization (2020). State of the World’s Nursing 2020. WHO, Geneva.

David R Thompson is Professor of Nursing and Barry Quinn is a Senior Lecturer in Nursing at Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, UK and Roger Watson is Professor of Nursing at the University of Hull, UK

Correspondence: David R. Thompson, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Queen’s University Belfast, MBC, 97 Lisburn Road, Belfast BT9 7BL, UK