SEATTLE -- The concept of "women's work" might have gone the way of hoop skirts and petticoats, but when it comes to nursing, women are still holding down more than 90 percent of the jobs.
Though men make up only about 6 percent of registered nurses, trends at the college and university level indicate that slow and steady change is happening, one enrollment slot at a time.
Locally, 11 percent of undergraduate nursing students at Seattle University are men, and men make up 14 percent of the same group at the University of Washington.
Zeroing in on SU's nursing program, where only about one in six applicants is accepted owing to a nationwide faculty shortage, classes still end up looking more like Oprah Winfrey's studio audience than a typical college classroom.
Josh Wymer, a recent SU nursing graduate, was one of the odd men out in that group -- a 28-year-old man who says he always knew he wanted to be a nurse, even before he worked in health care in the Navy and as a caregiver for ailing adults.
Sure, he says, every once in a while he came across someone whose jaw hit the floor upon hearing he was studying to be a nurse. (A male nurse, as they're often labeled, implying that "nurse" is an inherently feminine word that needs to be modified.)
"I think I ignore those," Wymer said. "I know that they're out there -- there are all the jokes. But it's easy to ignore them when you know why you're doing this."
A quick Google search reveals the downside of being a man working in a field dominated by women. On one message board, a nurse laments how his dates immediately write him off as a "nice guy" after hearing what he does for a living. On another board, a nurse pokes holes in the perception that the majority of men who go into nursing are gay.
But experts cite several reasons men are becoming more attracted to the prospect of a nursing career, including job security and high salaries - both of which stem for a heightened demand for nurses. Right out of college, RNs can make $45,000 to $60,000 a year, said Barbara Anderson, associate dean of nursing at SU.
"If they're looking for a high-paying job with a lot of mobility, and a job that will provide well for their families - nursing is where it's at," she said.
At Seattle Pacific University, 16 of 210 undergraduate nursing students are men - less than 10 percent. But the Seattle Community College District reports that over the past five years, 22 percent of graduates from its RN programs have been men.
Despite incentives, the nursing work force -- where the average age is 45 -- is still dominated by women. In 2004, 5.7 percent of the RNs in the U.S. were men, according to the government's most recent National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses. The survey found that number was an "insignificant increase" from 2000, when 5.4 percent of RNs were men.
But in 1980, less than 3 percent of the country's nurses were men, according to past studies.
"I think that nursing is really diverse - it's not about emptying bedpans and cleaning up vomit anymore," recent SU graduate Kelly Delahunty said.
"The fact that men are entering into our field is fantastic. But I would like to see more advertising and marketing geared toward men," she said.
Many men who work in nursing, such as Wymer, start their careers as combat medics in the military -- and some end up returning to the military after earning their RN credentials.
Medical workers are trained at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, and this year's enlistment numbers reflect a more masculine demographic than the civilian work force. About 16,100 of 21,200 combat medic trainees were men this year, as were about 1,100 of the 3,200 RNs who joined the ranks.
Although military numbers indicate that men are well represented as medical workers in the military, Anderson said civilian nursing has a way to go before male-to-female ratios more closely resemble medical school demographics, where about half of students tend to be women.
"Men make excellent nurses," Anderson said. "We've got to get rid of these stereotypes."P-I reporter Amy Rolph can be reached at 206-448-8223 or firstname.lastname@example.org