As the nursing school works to recruit more men and racial minorities to join its ranks, experts said it faces a nagging challenge: prospective students – and society as a whole – still view nurses as predominantly white women.
Almost 90 percent of students in the nursing school were female last year and about 57 percent were white – the highest proportion of white students in any of GW’s 13 schools, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research and Planning. The school has attempted to ramp up recruitment of male and minority students, but experts said the effort could be hampered by persistent stereotypes about the nursing profession and that if prospective male or minority students don’t see people like themselves in the field, they are less likely to enroll.
Since 2010, male enrollment in the school has not risen above 12 percent, though it has increased in each of the last three years. Last year, 62 men were enrolled in the school of more than 500 students.
Jennifer Hayes-Klosteridis, the assistant dean for Enrollment Management and Student Services, said the school’s gender breakdown mirrors the profession as a whole.
About 90 percent of registered nurses in the U.S. are female, according to a report by the Department of Health and Human Services released earlier this year.
“We don’t believe there are structural barriers unique to nursing schools that prohibit diversification of the student body, but instead is part of current American culture,” Hayes-Klosteridis said in an email.
The nursing school has a “robust” recruiting strategy to bring in Hispanic, black and male students, Hayes-Klosteridis said. The school recruits at conferences hosted by the National Hispanic Nurses Association, National Black Nurses Association and American Association for Men in Nursing and recently created a diversity council led by Dean Pamela Jeffries, she said.
The council hired Sandra Davis as it’s first assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion in July based on a recommendation from the council, Hayes-Klosteridis said.
“I think the question isn’t what nursing schools aren’t doing to encourage racial, ethnic and gender diversification, but rather, in the 21st century, will we see beliefs and perceptions among future college students begin to change about the profession of nursing,” Hayes-Klosteridis said.
The nursing school has grown more diverse since 2010, when more than two-thirds of its students were white, but last year the percentage of Hispanic students declined by about 2 percent while the black student population ticked up to 13.2 percent.
Comparatively, about 54 percent of the students enrolled in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences in 2016 were white last year. The business school had the lowest white student population – roughly 38 percent – in 2016, according to institutional data.
Experts said issues with gender and racial diversity is a challenge nursing schools across the country face.
Normajean Colby, an assistant professor of nursing at Widener University in Pennsylvania, said the proportion of male nursing students typically hovers around 10 percent nationwide, and the nursing workforce remains dominated by women.
“It’s creeped ever so slowly up a percentage point or two over the years, but it’s really unacceptable that it is so low,” Colby said. “That’s not enough at all, especially as we have nursing shortages.”
Colby added that it’s important for nursing schools to prioritize hiring male faculty so that prospective male students don’t perceive nursing as only a career path for women.
In past years, the University has struggled to bring in male faculty for the nursing school, lagging behind nursing schools at peer universities.
There are two male faculty members in the nursing school compared to 64 female faculty members, according to the school’s website.
Colby said nursing textbooks and professors often used “she and her” to refer to nurses, which often further dissuades men from joining the field.
“The nurses who are male are really kind of horrified by that because it’s like saying that nursing, providing care is not OK for a man to do,” she said.
Naomi Warren, an associate professor of clinical business communication at the University of Southern California and an expert in gender and diversity, said a school’s student body should mirror the patient population that students will eventually be treating.
“The classroom should reflect society in general, and society is made up of men and women and trans-people and same-sex people,” Warren said. “We need to mirror that in our classrooms, and more importantly we need to create a safe space.”
Warren said most of GW’s advertising for the nursing school appeared to portray its students as largely white and female, which can make minority or male students feel like they wouldn’t fit in at the school.
“I think administrators really have to look at their messaging and what are they saying,” Warren said. “It’s important if you’re trying to be more inclusive from a gender perspective. Think about who is in that picture, think about which pronouns you’re using.”