A patient and a registered nurse in a hospital in Chicago. The number of male registered nurses in the United States has increased substantially over the past 40 years.

As U.S. manufacturing jobs have waned, and the service and health care sectors have flourished over the past few decades, a growing number of men are leaving behind traditional factory or industry jobs for a new title: nurse. A new Equitable Growth working paper by University of Louisville’s Elizabeth Munnich and University of Notre Dame’s Abigail Wozniak documents the substantial increase in the share of male registered nurses over the past 40 years, going from 2.2 percent in 1960 to 13 percent in 2015. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1

Nursing is one of the most gender-segregated professions both in the United States and internationally. Many men entered nursing well into the 19th century, but the profession became the exclusive domain of women during the Industrial Revolution, thanks to a combination of cultural mores and legal barriers that kept men out. But over the past 40 years, things began to shift: Nursing schools were required to admit men, nonhospital based programs made it easier to obtain degrees later in one’s career, and the work became more physical in nature, possibly making it more attractive to men.

A registered nursing certification can be obtained through a two-year postsecondary school certification, meaning that it is a career that does not require a bachelor’s degree, although many nurses do have them. In fact, Munnich and Wozniak find that both men and women are more likely to become an RN as they age through their late 30s, implying that many enter nursing after pursing other professions initially.

The authors find that a shift in gender norms also played a substantial role in the rise of male RNs. Munnich and Wozniak discuss the way that organizations such as the American Assembly of Men in Nursing were established in the 1970s, and how some philanthropic foundations began to target their efforts toward recruiting and retaining male nurses. Campaigns aimed specifically at men began to crop up, with tag lines such as “Are you man enough to be a nurse?

This research should be viewed in the context of the decline of many middle-skilled jobs over the past 40 years, which have hit male-dominated industries such as manufacturing particularly hard. Earnings for men with a high school degree declined over the same period in which relative earnings for RNs increased as part of a growth in relative earnings for skilled workers more generally. But notably, since 1990, median earning levels for RNs have been on par with college-equivalent workers. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2

The two authors suggest that this has made nursing “considerably more attractive relative to jobs not requiring a college degree.” Munnich and Wozniak do not, however, look at how much of the increase in wages for RNs was driven solely by the growing share of men entering the profession. Other research documents that occupations with more men tend to be paid regardless of skill or education level. In fact, gender differences in occupations and industries account for more than half of the gender wage gap.

The authors’ findings are notable, given that they do not represent a larger trend of men entering traditionally female jobs. Munnich and Wozniak say that there was no similar uptick in the share of men in female-dominant professions such as primary and secondary teachers, bank tellers, and physicians’ assistants. Even though female-dominant occupations are some of the fastest growing in the United States, many men have been reluctant to take these jobs, with some men preferring to drop out of the labor force altogether—over the past few decades, men’s labor force participation has dropped precipitously.

What’s more, the authors also find that men are less likely to take nursing jobs during economic downturns, preferring to retreat to more traditional occupations. More work needs to be done to understand why.

Munnich and Wozniak’s research documenting the rising share of men in nursing is an important case study of how to move more men into a high-growth middle-skilled occupation. The authors suggest access to community college and degree certification programs will go a long way to bolstering the trend. But further research into what makes nursing unique—and why other female-dominant industries have not seen an equivalent influx of men—is crucial to address declining male labor force participation and help men adapt to the changing economy.

For more information on occupational segregation, check out our fact sheet here.