Is there such a thing as “women’s work”?
25-year-old Justin Yuen doesn’t think so.
Tall, well-built and sporting a full beard and mustache, Justin is, in every sense of the word, masculine. He also happens to be a nurse. With a penchant for making others feel appreciated and well taken care of, Justin was naturally drawn to the profession while in Polytechnic, regardless of the stigmas he knew it would entail.
Nursing—like teaching, waitressing and counselling—is widely considered a pink-collar job, in which women greatly outnumber men. Consequently, such jobs are labelled as ‘women’s work’. Unlike ‘men’s work’ which is ‘hardier’, ‘women’s work’ is often stereotyped as more ‘feminine’, more ‘caring’, and somehow worthy of lesser pay and lesser status.
Although such notions are outdated, traditional attitudes and social stigmas die hard, and it’s easy to see why men have long avoided (and continue to avoid) joining these professions.
J: Thank God I have not had that experience and I do not wish to be able to experience it. But I can imagine if a patient of mine were to die under my care, I would definitely question myself what I could have done better for my patient.
R: What then would you consider the hardest part about being a nurse?
J: Apart from the empty stomach, aching legs, distended bladder and headaches which come and go, the hardest part is seeking the cooperation from our patients and entertaining demanding family members.
At times it can even turn to verbal abuse and we have to keep our cool about it. Not forgetting that you have to pick yourself back up after and continue to care for rest of your patients.
There are also language barriers too.
On my first week as a new staff, I remember having to follow my senior to fetch a patient for surgery. Just as we reached the patient’s bed, my senior handed me the case notes and asked me to conduct the checklist.
Unfortunately, the patient spoke hokkien but I couldn’t speak dialect. The next best thing I could do was to converse in Mandarin which I also couldn’t speak fluently.
I was so embarrassed as the patient’s family members were all there and observing me. Ever since then I have been working on my Chinese.
J: I would say doing colorectal surgery. Having to deal with human waste during the surgery is one thing, but disposing and cleaning our instruments after is another.
R: What was it like bathing someone for the first time? Do you ever get used to it?
J: My first experience was during my student nurse attachment. It was a little awkward the first time but it slowly became a routine practice as we bathe our patients everyday.
R: Has a patient ever turned you away in favour of another nurse?
J: As a student nurse yes. There is a stigma that student nurses are not able to perform certain skills that a staff can. Naturally patients who do not trust that the student is competent will ask for a staff instead.
When I was rejected by the patient, I felt disappointed that us students were not given the benefit of the doubt to carry out our clinical skills. The future of our healthcare industry is in the hands of our medical and nursing students so we have to give them the chance to learn through experience.
But thankfully as a staff, not one has rejected me.
In fact, many times I get mistaken as a doctor before I introduce myself. My patients and their family members are sometimes surprised to find out that I’m a nurse instead.
J: Yes, in my class of seventeen, only 3 were guys. At my workplace where I work in the operating theatre as a scrub nurse, we have over four hundred staff and only 9 of us are male.
We need to change the impression that is is a female’s job when in fact all of us, can be involved in a patient’s care to recovery.
R: As a male nurse, do you see your gender as advantageous or disadvantageous to your job?
J: I see it both ways.
Male nurses stand out in a sea of females and so we are definitely noticed for our contribution.
On the other hand, we are not as manpower efficient as the female nurses since they are able to attend to patients of both genders. As much as possible male nurses are assigned to take care of male patients and strongly encouraged to be in the company of a chaperone when attending to a patient of the opposite sex.
R: What have you found that male nurses can do, that female nurses cannot?
J: I feel that we are able to connect better with male patients, especially the younger ones. We can talk to them on a ‘bro’ basis which makes them feel more comfortable.
There was once a young National Service recruit who came in for an operation and he was extremely nervous about the procedure.
Whilst doing my preoperative checks on him, I shared some past experiences of when I was in the service and he immediately opened up to me. After some words of encouragement, explaining the workflow and care that he needed to take note of post-operatively, he was more settled down.
Nothing is more reassuring than words from someone who can relate to you and say that they’ve ‘been there done that’, especially from a fellow brother.
J: I do still think that there is a stigma against male nurses to a certain extent. In fact every time someone asks me what do I do for a living or where do I work, the conversation always ends up with why I chose nursing.
Often, people think that we are in this field of work not by choice but due to us not doing well in our studies and having to settle for a diploma in nursing.
R: Is it because the cut off points for nursing are high? Would raising it help?
J: Yes, the cut off points for nursing are higher than other courses in Poly but that’s because we’re severely short on manpower. By leaving the cut off points wide open, it will allow more applicants to enter the course.
Sure it may not attract the top scoring students but at the same time, there are single pointer students who enroll into nursing. On the other hand, those who do not meet the cut off points for other courses will have a chance to try out nursing. I have had many friends who chose nursing not by choice but who ended up enjoying it, furthering their studies, and becoming great nurses.
Raising the cut off points may change the stigma but we just have to accept that our society is not educated enough about the work we do and the reasons why we do what we do.
In fact, between doctors and nurses, I would say we nurses have a bigger part to play when it comes to patient care. Doctors may do most of the planning but they rely on us to execute them and give them feedback on the progress of the patient.
R: What would you say to people who think that a man can’t provide the level of care that a woman can?
J: I would ask them what makes them think that a man can’t?
More than the stigma, I think we need to start dispelling this stereotype that links specific genders and the levels of care they can provide. If we cannot assume that women are “girly”, naturally it should not be assumed that men are “less caring”.