It’s International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, celebrating the work of those working in these professions and providing a golden opportunity to attract more applicants to such essential and rewarding roles. What better time, then, to hear from someone who busts all the stereotypes and is helping to blaze a trail for men wanting to become nurses, a profession where they make up just 11 per cent of the workforce?
At St Luke’s Hospice Plymouth, Andy Shaw is Head of Community Services, a highly skilled nurse who leads the multidisciplinary team looking after terminally ill patients at home, but in his previous life he could be found ‘eating bears for breakfast and wrestling tigers for lunch’. This is his analogy, which captures the male-only, testosterone fuelled environment in which he excelled as a Royal Marine Commando who rose to Sergeant and Senior Instructor as he served in conflicts across the globe, including in the Falklands, Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia and Northern Iraq. It was a regimented world in stark contrast to the compassion and care associated with the nursing career he went on to embrace.
Andy said: “When I joined the Royal Marine Commandos back in 1980, I was doing what was expected of me. Raised in Plymouth, I was a council house lad from a naval family, and it seemed the only careers open to comprehensive schoolboys like me were following your father into his trade, going into the Dockyard or the military. It was even more limited for the girls, shop or secretarial work were the only offers. Options felt very limited.
“In fact, my papers arrived before I even sat my exams and off I went. What followed was an exhilarating 23-year career I enjoyed, and which taught me a huge amount about leadership but, as I later came to realise, I was living in a bubble. I knew exactly what was expected of me 24/7, was surrounded by other men – no women – day in, day out, and was among colleagues who all shared the same opinions as me.
“So, what changed? It was a combination of right place, right time and the fact that I had married and recently become a father, which brought with it a whole new set of emotions and perspectives. It wasn’t until a rep from Exeter University told me and my colleagues our leadership learning could enable us to study at accredited masters level that it hit me – I had the potential to be something other than a Royal Marine, and with the end of my contract in sight I took the momentous decision to embark on a postgraduate study programme ending in a dissertation, a word I couldn’t spell let alone understand!
“It was a complete culture shock. Suddenly, not only was I getting to grips with academic work but meeting people from a variety of backgrounds who held vastly different views to mine. I could feel my attitude changing and the opportunity for a second career was opening up.”
Married to nurse Sue (who is now also part of the Community team at St Luke’s), and having been introduced to both male and female nurses, seeds were sown and, after gaining O and A-levels at night school, Andy embarked on a nursing degree at Plymouth. However, if he thought he’d escaped a world where stereotyping was the norm, he was mistaken.
He said: “When I got flak from my fellow marines, such as nursing ‘only being for women or homosexual men’, it wasn’t a shock, but on my degree course – where just three out of 50 of us were male – I encountered prejudice from some female students, too. Comments such as, “As a man, you won’t understand” and “Typical marine!” weren’t uncommon to hear. Some also assumed I’d be less compassionate than a woman.”
Not letting himself be held back, Andy went on to carve out a career in nursing, working in intensive care. However, even there he found that while female nurses were looking after boys and men of all ages, as a male nurse it was sometimes deemed inappropriate for him to care for young women.
Andy said: “It shows how deep gender stereotyping can go, which is sad and frustrating because it doesn’t just limit career choices but people’s potential, too.”
“Raising awareness is really important, so Year of the Nurse is an extra opportunity to bust unhelpful myths. I already speak at events where I share my story, but it’s really important that change happens in educating children at a really young age – at home and at school – so that we only refer to men in nursing as nurses not ‘male nurses’ and women in engineering as engineers not ‘female engineers’. We need to realise that as parents, employers and teachers the power to effect long-term positive change is in our own hands.”