Male nurse Todd Ingram couldn't bring himself to finish the movie "Meet the Parents."
Ingram said he made it to the point in the movie when a group of men erupted into laughter upon learning Ben Stiller's character's profession: a male nurse. They assumed he was joking.
"The stereotypes are still out there, unfortunately, that nursing is women's work," Ingram, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Iowa, told the Iowa City Press-Citizen(http://icp-c.com/XTnJBw).
Despite the lingering stigma in popular culture, a recent U.S. Census Bureau report says the proportion of males working as nurses is slowly climbing. In fact, the percentage of registered nurses in the U.S. who are male has more than tripled since 1970, from 2.7 to 9.6 percent in 2011.
The proportion of male registered nurses at UI Hospitals and Clinics is slightly lower than the national average: 8 percent. Historical data on the proportion of male-to-female nurses could not be provided for this article. Local experts say they're surprised by the increase the Census Bureau numbers identified, as other research and anecdotal observation revealed a much more gradual uptick.
Some say the stereotypes that once prevented young men from viewing nursing as a viable profession are slowly losing their hold over the country. But while traditional gender roles have undergone dramatic shifts in some areas, the idea that such a nurturing line of work is only for women seems to be taking longer to dispel, said John Wagner, director of Clinical Services for Behavioral Health in UIHC's nursing department.
"There's just as great a distribution in men in terms of men that want to help people," he said. "I think that is very strong within the male population, but I think it's only recently that that's been viewed as favorable by society."
Given how male nurses are portrayed in movies and TV, it's still likely that young men considering nursing could be concerned about being viewed as "less of a man" by the public, Ingram said.
Of the 3.5 million employed nurses in 2011, about 3.2 million were women and 330,000 were male, according to the Census data. Most of the nurses working in 2011 — 78 percent — were registered nurses. Another 19 percent were licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses — positions that Wagner said don't exist at UIHC — and 1 percent were nurse anesthetists.
Males weren't always a minority in nursing. In fact, until the 1800s, they represented a significant proportion of the industry because of its military and religious connections, according to Census data. The decline of males in nursing began in the 1900s when legal barriers were created that prevented them from entering the profession.
The Census report found that women working as full-time nurses earned 91 cents for every dollar that male nurses earned in 2011, or an average of $51,000 per year for women compared with $60,700 for men.
UIHC employees' pay is determined using a set formula based on education, level of experience and seniority, so one's gender has no impact on the amount of money they make, Wagner said.
"I think that most hospitals in particular have gone to great lengths to try to eliminate (wage disparities,)" he said. "I know we have."
Aside from the social changes, the nursing industry's low unemployment rate also could be contributing to the increase in males joining the ranks. Wagner said that's the message he hears from many adults who enter the profession later in life.
Some enter nursing as a safe escape from the trauma that comes with being laid off in a tough economy, Wagner said.
"If you lost a job and couldn't find another job, not ending up in that situation again is a big factor," he said.
But Ingram, who interacts with more students, said he doesn't see practicality being the reason that young people choose nursing. He said most of his male students were introduced to the profession by a parent or close family member who's a nurse. None of them, to Ingram's frustration, tell him they were introduced to nursing by a guidance counselor in middle or high school.
That was the case with Iowa City Veteran's Affairs Medical Center nurse Dan Lose, who graduated from UI's College of Nursing in May 2012. He learned about the profession growing up through his grandmother, who is a nurse. His father is a dentist.
"I was always around health care," he said.
Lose, 24, said he's noticed the shift toward more males entering nursing, which he attributes to more people being introduced at an early age. In the past, he said, it was probably more common for males interested in health care to think that becoming a doctor was their only option.
Lose said he personally has never experienced the negative end of male nurse stereotypes.
Back when Wagner was growing up, things were different.
"I remember in high school standing in this long line of women to talk to the nurse recruiter and literally getting kind of hazed by guys that were like, 'Wagner, what are you doing in that line?' It was kind of an uncomfortable experience," he said. "I just don't think young men today have that."