How were your grades in nursing school?

I know, most of us try to forget all those nursing school tests, but for the sake of our patients and our profession, let’s consider those tests again and how important equity in nursing education is to our ability to attract, train, and retain a diverse nursing workforce.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “… it is essential to have a nursing workforce that will reflect the population of the United States so as to deliver cost-effective, quality care and improve patients’ satisfaction and health outcomes…”

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing adds, “…diversity in the nursing workforce provides opportunities to deliver quality care which promotes patient satisfaction and emotional well-being.”

But despite imperatives such as these, we still find a large gender discrepancy in nursing demographics. Statistics from the American Nursing Association show that just 11% of licensed nurses are male. Other sources put that number at just 9%, and research suggests that gender bias in nursing education could be playing a role.

According to a study published in Nursing Education Today, implicit gender discrimination in nursing education can affect how female and male students are graded on short-answer or essay exams (the types of tests with room for subjectivity in grading). In the study, the researchers looked at how students’ grades changed depending upon whether instructors were blinded or un-blinded to students’ gender. The instructors in the study graded the exams once and then two months later were asked to re-grade them after the identities of the students had been hidden.

The results showed that when instructors knew they were scoring a male student’s exam, he tended to score lower than when the instructors were blinded to his gender. The opposite was true among female students’ exam scores – their grades generally went up when instructors were aware of gender and down when they were not.

Granted, this was a small study including just eight nursing school instructors and 400 exams, but certainly the results are worth noting – especially by anyone involved in nursing education. Bias in our nursing education can result in negative feedback to male students, affecting nursing school retention rates and discouraging men from pursuing nursing careers.

Additional research in Nurse Education Today sheds more light on the situation. Called “Gender Differences in the academic and clinical performance of undergraduate nursing students: A systematic review,” the meta-analysis looked at 55 studies on gender bias in nursing education and found a few general trends including: negative experiences among male nursing students during their obstetric clinical placements, differences in learning styles among male and female nursing students perhaps affecting male success in nursing programs, and that many male nursing students do not feel supported in their nursing programs.

The good news?

Both men and women feel equally “called” to the profession of nursing, and really that’s the future of nursing.

Angela Ballard, RN, EMT

Angela Ballard is a registered nurse and emergency medical technician living in Northern California. She's also a professional writer specializing in health, wellness, and biotech -- writing websites, newsletters, blogs, and more. To help her (and you) keep up with the latest research, Angela co-hosts a scientific and medical podcast called "Medically Clear" (find it on iTunes). She's also co-author of the award-winning hiking book "A Blistered Kind of Love" (Mountaineers Books). In her free time Angela volunteers for Guide Dogs for the Blind and Marin Villages, an organization that helps seniors remain in their own homes. She loves to run, travel, and spend time with her husband and two children.

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