“Are You Man Enough to Be a Nurse?” Campaign Posters

By: Tristan Bridges and Sarah Mosseri

Cross-posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design

Beliefs about inherent differences between men and women are pervasive.  Thinking about men and women in opposition to one another is a belief system, and one in which our culture puts a great deal of stock.  Gender differences are promoted by popular culture and are subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) reproduced through our basic institutions such as the family, education, and the military. So-called “natural differences” are also called upon to justify and reinforce gendered divisions of labor by suggesting that women and men are somehow naturally suited to different kinds of work.

As with most socially constructed distinctions, the notion of “separate but equal” does not apply here.  The prototypical “feminine” work is care work (e.g., teacher, nurse, social worker, flight attendant), and professions organized around “care” account for a huge proportion of women’s paid work.  Barbara Reskin and Patricia Roos (here) report that roughly one third of the 66,000,000 women in the formal labor force in the early 2000’s could be accounted for by only 10 (of the 503) occupations listed on the U.S. Census!  Not much has changed in more recent history either.

Now recognized as “occupational ghettos”, these female-dominated care professions are associated with a great deal of work, lower levels of cultural status and prestige, and often less pay as well.  As a phenomenon, occupational segregation may well account for the majority of the gender wage gap.  According to Maria Charles and David Grusky (here), occupational segregation persists less because we think of men as better and more deserving of the higher status and higher paying jobs and more because of our collective investment in the idea that men and women are simply naturally suited to different sorts of work.

Nursing is one example of this.  An area of care work, nursing is a female-dominated occupation that has suffered from the effects of gendered devaluation—an issue that has made it difficult to recruit men into the field. As Paula England argues, “Because the devaluation of activities done by women has changed little, women have had strong incentive to enter male jobs, but men have little incentive to take on female activities or jobs” (here).

Intending to challenge the femininity of nursing and to directly target men for recruitment into the field, the Oregon Center for Nursing (OCN) launched the “Are You Man Enough To Be A Nurse” campaign.

Are you man enough 2


The posters, having the difficult task of culturally reframing the gendered associations of nursing, strategically “borrow” symbols from a dominant form of masculinity.  Specifically, they work to transfer the symbolic power of this exalted form of masculinity toward potential male nurses to empower them to enter the field.  This strategic appeal to dominant masculine images and ideals can be seen in the headline, which questions not simply whether one is “man” but whether he is “man enough” to be a nurse.  It’s further supported by the images of the male nurses who, muscular and toned, pose feet apart with eyes gazing directly into the camera.  These are not men to be looked at, they’re staring you down, daring you to judge them.

Additionally, men in each poster are equipped with a series of masculine resources symbolized by props like surfboards, snowboards, climbing equipment, sports gear, leather jackets, golf clubs, athletic bodies, and more.  Collectively, these props serve as a set of discount factors helping to authorize these men’s gender identities in their participation in culturally feminized work. Titles such as “fisherman” found underneath the men’s names and occupational descriptions emphasize these other aspects of their identities (what we might call their hobbies) that work to either culturally reinstate their masculine identities or are understood to symbolically “cancel out” the presumed emasculation resulting from being both a man and a nurse.  Indeed, in highlighting their out-of-work identities, the posters present men with their hobbies first, and as nurses second.  So, they’re fishermen, distance runners, Harley riders, base guitarists, scuba divers, etc. who happen to be nurses (and NOT the other way around).

Has this approach been successful?  Or will it be?  It depends on how you define success.  The poster has enjoyed widespread acclaim and was praised by the American Assembly for Men in Nursing (AAMN) for its facilitation of improved male recruitment.  In this way, it has been successful.  Yet, the posters fail to challenge the underlying gender structure that positions masculinity as inherently different than (and superior to) femininity.

While not making any explicit claims about men being “better” at nursing than women (what Charles and Grusky refer to as the “tenet of male primacy”), the posters rely on our investment in gender differences (what Charles and Grusky refer to as the “tenet of gender essentialism”). Thus, perhaps in a more meaningful way, this campaign is better understood as unsuccessful—at least insofar as it might bring about meaningful change in gender relations or occupational segregation more generally.  Michael Messner refers to this kind of thinking as “soft essentialism” and documents some of its pernicious effects in youth sports (see also Bridges and Kimmel on “soft essentialism”).

By appealing to a set of highly exclusive images of masculinity, the posters communicate that these men are still men; they just happen to be nurses too.  In this way, the posters are actually relying on the same essentialist ideology that pushes men away from (and women toward) nursing in the first place.  The takeaway messages seems to be that, unlike women who are believed to make good nurses because they are women, men make good nurses in spite of being men.


4 thoughts on ““Are You Man Enough to Be a Nurse?” Campaign Posters

  1. I understand and agree with what you’re saying here, but it also reminds me of something I think about often when I read this sort of argument, which is – how do you strike an appropriate balance between moral and ideological purity on the one hand and the ability to reach people and change minds on the other? If an advertising campaign like this could lead people toward some sort of progressive conclusion (such as “it’s not bad or weird for men to be nurses”) in a way that a more fundamentally transformative message would not for whatever reason (maybe, in their eyes, it’s too theoretical or too radical or something like that), is it worth sacrificing some of our ambitions or incorporating tropes we find problematic (such as “men are tough, even male nurses”) in order to reach those people? Could exposure to a message like this allow people to be more open to other messages down the road that could be more challenging and transformative?

    • I think you make a good point about this ad perhaps opening the door to future discussions. I also agree with you, in part, about the practical need for advertisers to put out a message that is not alienating to those it is trying to target.

      On the other hand, I worry the campaign might indeed bring more men into the field, yet rather than redefining gender beliefs and elevating the value of care work, it might simply redefine the organization of the nursing profession. Occupational integration, without addressing the underlying gender dynamics, may actually end up being detrimental to female nurses. Specifically, I’m thinking of Christine Williams’ research that shows that men who enter into female professions are often treated in privileged ways, gaining greater respect and faster pay increases/promotions than women in the field.

      At the end of the day, we are talking about it though! So for that, I think the campaign is useful!

    • Thanks Matthew. I agree with Sarah. It’s a good point. If it gets more men into nursing (and it’s not actually hurting anyone), isn’t it a good idea. When Sarah and I were writing about this, we thought about including the anti-sexual assault campaign, “My Strength is Not for Hurting.” They publish a series of posters that rely on a very specific masculinity to get men on the right side of the debate. But, they do so in ways that reproduce and reiterate the same kinds of masculinities that lead to inequality in the first place. Michael Murphy asked whether this kind of strategic essentialism ends up accomplishing its mission, or whether – in a more pernicious sort of way – these images ends up subtly reproducing the same problems they’re intending to challenge (http://jmm.sagepub.com/content/12/1/113.short). I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think less attention was paid to why this approach might not be a good idea. So, we stepped in there. Thanks for reading – and for the comment.

  2. As over the top as it is – I really like it when ad campaigns with a social mission, like thetruth.com and their anti-tobacco campaigns, use stats presented in creative ways to get messages across and change people’s minds about things. This campaign could’ve highlighted the fact that in Texas, the number of registered male nurses has almost doubled in the past 10 years*! Showing that nursing is a growing field for men makes it obvious that this is a choice that lots of men are making, without reinforcing essentialist images of either gender.

    * NYT:More Men Enter Fields Dominated by Women (5/20/2012)

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