Two female nurses walk down hospital hallway.

While men dominate the most influential companies in the world, holding down high-paying executive positions, women rule the roost in nursing. Have you ever wondered why nursing is female dominated? What about the underrepresentation of women in healthcare leadership? Two great questions to dive into as we celebrate Women's History Month.

The History of Female Dominance in Healthcare

If you're a nurse working in a U.S. clinic or hospital, there's an 87.9% chance that your nursing colleagues are women. Female dominance in healthcare isn't just a U.S. phenomenon. The results of a 2019 survey show that female nurses dominate healthcare in every country.

And you can't necessarily blame female dominance on Florence Nightingale. Most consider her the founder of modern nursing—and wonder if she instigated a female-only policy. She thought men were the best choice for nursing wounded soldiers on the battlefield and felt that the British Colonel Gordon, who cared deeply for his men, was as much a nurse as herself.

So, how did women take over the nursing profession? The answer is somewhat complex, driven by defining events, gender bias, and public perception.

Defining Events

Believe it or not, when the first U.S. hospitals came into view during the 1700s, most nurses—called stewards—were males.

During the Civil War, which began in 1861, there weren't enough male nurses, so women volunteered to help—which morphed into the beginning of the female-dominated nursing profession we know today. In 1873, the first nursing school opened, and by 1900, 91% of all nurses were women.

Men were completely shut out of nursing when the United States Army Corps reorganized their division in 1901 and banned men from the profession—a situation that lasted until 1955. Many nursing schools refused admission to men until a 1981 court order forced them to accept male students. 

Socially Constructed Gender Roles

Since the introduction of the Nightingale nursing training style in the mid-19th century, nursing has been portrayed as a feminine occupation.

Nurses are stereotypically portrayed as humble, gentle, subordinate, and compassionate, leaving little room for what society considers as masculine traits. This stereotype puts pressure on males as they decide to join or remain in nursing.

Furthermore, the myth surrounding female nurses and femininity and male nurses and masculinity is misleading, especially when there isn’t strong evidence that gender affects caring behavior. The perception that nursing comes “naturally” to women due to their biological and reproductive roles is seen as “unnatural” for men in a “female-oriented” profession.

Caregiving Stereotypes

Society often views women as being empathic and sound communicators. While this is a hotly debated topic, the general consensus is that women care more and show more empathy in addition to being cast in caregiving roles. Most caregivers for elderly parents and relatives are women.

The Role of Flexible Nursing Schedules

Before the healthcare staffing shortage, nursing was a highly sought-after profession because it allowed women to secure a well-paying job with the flexibility to care for and be there for their children. However, since COVID-19, this flexibility feels lost as healthcare employers require their nurses to work weekends, holidays, and overtime hours.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Nursing job apps, such as ShiftMed, empower nurses to balance the life they want with the job they love.

So, if you're a nurse who wants it all—whether it be working and caring for your children, working and going to school to further your career, or taking some time off to see the world—ShiftMed puts you in control of your schedule. Download the ShiftMed app to start working when and where you want.

ShiftMed CNA Nicole J. talks about having the job flexibility she needs to care for her son.

The Need for More Gender Diversity in Healthcare Leadership

While women reign in nursing, they face underrepresentation on healthcare leadership teams, which likely diminishes their role in policy decisions that affect women's health.

For example, men hold 85% of the CEO roles in healthcare organizations. Furthermore, research on the world's most influential companies found that 14% didn't have a single female board member. Regarding executive leadership, only 0.7% of these companies had more female than male executives.

Companies with a more gender-balanced board are more likely to have a more gender-balanced executive team—demonstrating that women lift each other up.

Leadership Opportunities

If you aren't familiar with the leadership opportunities available to nurses, here are some examples:

  • Chief Nursing Officer

  • Healthcare Administrator

  • Director of Nursing

  • Clinical Nurse Manager

  • Director of Patient Care Services

  • Nursing Care Coordinator

  • Nursing Shift Supervisor

  • Nurse Educator

Find a mentor and build relationships to pursue a leadership position. Do an internet search and find out what qualifications you need. Then, plan to get additional schooling and experience.

Depending on what type of career advancement you're considering, you can get discounted tuition. ShiftMed nurses receive special pricing on select OpusVi education programs.

Breaking Glass Ceilings in Healthcare

Embarking on the journey towards a healthcare leadership position, traditionally occupied by males, necessitates a tenacious pursuit of breaking down barriers and being intentional about your education and experience. You'll need to challenge norms and shatter stereotypes as you forge a path that defies expectations and paves the way for a new era of inclusive healthcare leadership.

Don't see yourself as leadership material? If you're a nurse, you're already a leader. Collaborating as part of an interdisciplinary team and advocating for your patients is a big deal. Plus, several women before you have been successful—so why not you? Let these nine contemporary healthcare trailblazers be your source of inspiration.

Future Gender Diversity in Healthcare

Amidst a societal backdrop where men traditionally occupy directorial and executive positions, healthcare leadership emerges as a beacon of gender reversal. The question of why nursing is predominantly female is compelling, inviting exploration and reflection, especially during Women's History Month. As we navigate this landscape, it becomes evident that healthcare is not just a profession but a testament to the power and influence wielded by women in reshaping the narrative of an entire industry.

Related Content