Mythbuster 9: Teaching children and nursing – are these the careers of real men?

One of the many obstacles to men in the labour market is the stereotypical attitudes concerning men and women’s role in the society. Gender roles are defined by culture, but gender stereotypes are beliefs and attitudes about masculinity and femininity. These may influence men’s choices of studies and jobs, and ultimately lead to a gender-segregated labour market. These stereotypes also influence the unequal sharing between women and men of working time, income and family responsibilities; which helps to entrench some of the beliefs that women are better with children or take up lower paid jobs, which can create barriers for men in certain professions.

The stereotypes associated with men which dictate, for example, that men should be in a higher paying job or have learnt a trade do not reflect what most men are but what society thinks they ought to be.


2011 statistics from the General Teaching Council for England showed that women make up three-quarters of registered teachers. Only 12% of primary school teachers are male, compared with 38% of secondary school teachers – with the proportions virtually unchanged since 2010.

A photo of a male teacher
Teacher by Ben Russell

Teacher’s salaries cannot compete with the pay available in the private sector and many early-year educators move into higher-paying/ status jobs in school administration and higher education. Simon Horrocks, 40, a Year 6 teacher in Folkestone, Kent, says if you are motivated by money it is not for you. “But if you are motivated by self-worth and want to make a difference, there is nothing more rewarding.” But cultural attitudes link self-worth to status and gender roles have moulded a society where men are viewed as the breadwinners who ‘should’ ideally choose careers that will give them the highest possible pay. These expectations will deter some people from low paid and traditionally ‘feminine’ jobs, which can be rewarding such as nursing and teaching.

The idea held by some educators and parents that women are naturally better at nurturing than men have also erected barriers. According to a survey by the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA), almost half of primary school children have no contact with a male teacher. Women are seen as having maternal instincts and therefore better equipped to teach children but there is no biological reason or evident to suggest male teachers cannot be just as kind, responsible and competent as female teachers.

Education Secretary Michael Gove believes that male teachers are put off by worries that teacher-pupil contact is a “legal minefield”. Most teachers believe that physical contact and expressing friendliness and warmth towards pupil is natural and important. But cases of child-abuse which receive ample media attention have according to some created a culture of suspicion. Primary school teacher Matthew Friday at Ravenstone Primary School in south London says: “People expect male teachers to fit into one of two stereotypes: sporty and practical or effeminate and ‘therefore gay’,” he says. “I am neither, so I’m in a sort of uneasy third place. People can be suspicious of your motives and feel they need an explanation, which they don’t with female teachers.” This idea that men can’t be school teachers because children may be at risk of sexual abuse is advocated but actually men can act as great role models, showing pupils that men, as well as women, can be nurturing.


According to the National League for Nursing, in 2011, men made up 15% of enrolments to nursing programs, 8% more than are found in the current workforce.

Dr Murray Fisher, who worked as a nurse for 10 years before beginning his doctoral studies on how gender identity disadvantages and marginalises some men, found that men were less put off nursing due to poor pay, shift work or a lack of career advancement, but because they feared judgement from others. Dr Fisher says young men “have to be quite strong and sure of themselves and their identity to take the risk.” adding “people perceive there to be a large nurturing and mothering role in nursing. They are seen as basically feminine characteristics and therefore those characteristics are ascribed to male nurses as well.”

a photo of all female nursing students
Nursing students


So why the stigma? Many people are unaware of what many nurses actually do. They can be in the military, primary care, emergency departments, trauma rehabilitation centres, intensive care units, and even air medical transport service. This lack of knowledge leads to many of the stereotypes that keep men out of nursing. Brian Owens, who left a career in banking to work as a nurse at the Royal Wolverhampton Hospitals notes: “The public perception is that a nurse is a runaround and that all you do is wash people. Of course, that is part of the job, but it’s not the only part.”

There are significant differences between how certain areas within the nursing profession are viewed; with some being perceived as more ‘acceptable’ for men. According to figures from the NHS Information Centre, mental health is more than a third male. And other areas that attract a lot of men include intensive care, theatre and A&E. However, in areas including health visiting and midwifery, where men make up 1.5% and 0.8% of the respective workforces, men’s career choices may still be questioned – not just by members of the public but also by some members of the profession.

In the labour market, stereotypes are used as estimates of peoples abilities and productivity when their true characteristics are not fully known, for example, presumptions about women being more emotional or affectionate and thus being ‘better’ at nursing or teaching. And often personality traits, preferences and potential are inferred just from an individual’s biological sex. But ultimately, educators agree, the quality of the teacher is what counts. The medical profession can also settle that the ability and high standard of care of nurses, whether they are male or female, is what really matters.

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