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Economists find access to education, changing gender roles driving more men into nursing

Author: Brittany Collins Kaufman

Abigail WozniakAbigail Wozniak

Nursing is historically seen as a field dominated by women. However, new research from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Louisville shows that the number of men in the field has risen substantially since 1960, a marker of changing economic and social trends.

In the working paper published recently by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Abigail Wozniak, associate professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame, and Elizabeth Munnich, assistant professor of economics at the University of Louisville, document four decades of an increasing number of men working as registered nurses throughout the United States.

In 1960, men made up 2.2 percent of registered nurses, according to their data. By 2013, that number had risen to 13 percent.

“Men are over 10 times more likely to report a nursing occupation today than in 1960,” Wozniak said. “But our main goal was to try to understand the reasons for this change. It’s very unusual to see men move into occupations that are primarily done by women.”

Munnich and Wozniak viewed the rise of male RNs as a case study in a larger societal shift in education and gender role factors, among other areas. Using the U.S. Census and the annual American Community Survey, the researchers drew data about men ages 18 to 39, who were born between 1954 and 1995.

“We found that there are several factors contributing to men going into nursing, and into RN work in particular,” Wozniak said. “The biggest factors are educational preparation, in the form of high school completion, and community college access; rising local demand for health care workers; and the relaxing of traditional gender role attitudes.”

They found that both men and women are increasingly likely to enter nursing as they enter their 30s — a delayed career path that, the researchers say, is important for policymakers to recognize when considering access to education and training.

“I hope policymakers will consider nursing to be a useful case study of how workers, but particularly men, can take up a high-paying career that is nevertheless accessible to many workers on the basis of their education and work experience. I particularly hope this is used to inform some of the policies being suggested to raise nurse qualifications. Qualifications are certainly important for health care workers, but so is preserving the ability of workers to join and excel in those fields.”

— Abigail Wozniak, associate professor of economics

“I hope policymakers will consider nursing to be a useful case study of how workers, but particularly men, can take up a high-paying career that is nevertheless accessible to many workers on the basis of their education and work experience. I particularly hope this is used to inform some of the policies being suggested to raise nurse qualifications. Qualifications are certainly important for health care workers, but so is preserving the ability of workers to join and excel in those fields,” Wozniak said.

Wozniak and Munnich also identified two important factors that continue to keep men from becoming nurses: poor labor market conditions as they enter the workforce and immigrant inflows.

“We find that when business cycle conditions deteriorate for a cohort of men early in their careers, fewer of them take up RN work. This is surprising, since health care is a sector that is typically less cyclical, so we might have expected the opposite finding,” Wozniak said. “I was also surprised at the relatively large, negative effects of immigrant inflows on men working as RNs, since in many other studies we do not find generalized labor market impacts of immigrants on natives. But this appears to be one occupation that is an exception, and we have since learned that this is consistent with other research on the foreign-born in nursing.”

The paper, “What explains the rising share of U.S. men in registered nursing?” is available online here: http://equitablegrowth.org/working-papers/rising-share-men-nursing/.

Originally published at news.nd.edu.