(MS) -- Male nurses haven't always been such a minority. Although men comprise only about 6 percent of today's total nursing population in the United States, nursing schools for men were actually quite common and about half of the nation's paid nurses were male during the early 1900s.
By 1930, however, the percentage of male nurses dropped to a meager 1 percent, as men fled the profession for more lucrative occupations. That was the case for several decades, until the late 1980s, when inflation, nursing shortages, a rise in nursing salaries, and shifting attitudes about gender combined to attract new generations of men to the profession.
Research indicates that men and women enter the profession for the same reasons. Both men and women are interested in working with sick and injured people and they are seeking careers that offer challenges, reasonable job security and good salaries.
And with many parts of the United States and other western nations facing nursing shortages that are expected to peak in the mid-2020s, when much of the current generation of nurses will retire, men will have a vital role to play in filling those gaps.
Some researchers have even predicted that the nation's ability to handle the projected shortage of nurses hinges on strong increases in the number of males entering the profession.
While the number of men in nursing programs is growing, the public perception of male nurses, which has unfairly carried a negative connotation through the years, persists and continues to keep them away from the field.
Many male nurses also recount stories of patients assuming they are doctors or asking why they had decided against attending medical school -- as if being a nurse was a fallback position rather than a first choice.
Others note that the scarcity of male role models, instructors and mentors has made it more difficult not only to enter the profession but also to advance their careers.
At the same time, nursing schools and organizations have launched initiatives aimed at recruiting men, and these efforts are paying off, albeit slowly.
The population of male nurses is increasing by roughly 2 to 3 percent each year and it has been predicted that by 2020, males nurses will make up about 25 percent of the total nursing workforce.
Another factor that may spur the increase in male nurses is age. On average, male nurses tend to enter nursing at a younger age than female nurses and therefore have the potential for longer careers.
More information about men in nursing is available at the American Assembly for Men in Nursing website at aamn.org.