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Male midwives: How men are changing the rules

Midwife and lecturer Donovan Jones gives his verdict on the lack of men in the nursing and midwifery industry.

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When Nottingham based Josh Downey was named Midwife of the Year in 2016 it was a step forward not only for Josh personally, but for the midwifery profession in general. Josh, is a new breed of male midwives.

We’re all too familiar with sexism towards women in the workplace, and unequal opportunities for females, but little has been spoken of attitudes to men in traditionally female dominated professions.

In fact, despite the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 which finally allowed men to train as midwives, to a large extent men working in midwifery is still a taboo.

With both International Day of the Midwife (May 5th),and International Nurses Day (May 12th) set to take place, along with 2017 being the 40th anniversary since the first men entered midwifery training, the spotlight is on the nursing professions.

Men in nursing and midwifery

Although, the nursing profession in general has done much to conquer gender stereotypes, according to the NHS, male general practice nurses still make up just 11.4% of the workforce.

Though this is an improvement on men in midwifery, which makes up a mere 0.4% of the workforce, it’s by no means a triumph.

There are concerns in some quarters that stereotypes, gender bias and societal attitudes are stopping men from training as midwives. This attitude could be a reason behind the disparity between male and female students entering midwifery and nursing courses.

According to data taken from the HESA (The Higher Education Statistics Agency), just 105 male students entered a midwifery course, compared to 9,155 female students.

It’s true that up until 1975, midwifery was seen as a female profession in the eyes of the law, and men were prevented from training. But times have changed, attitudes must follow.

Interestingly it was midwives themselves who opposed the idea of male midwives and the Royal Collage of Midwives fought back against proposed legislative changes in 1951 that would allow male midwives on three grounds:

  1. Midwives give intimate care and most of the public and the birthing woman would not accept this care from a male midwife.
  2. The depth of intimate care required for psychological support during a woman’s pregnancy is best given by another female.
  3. And the very fact that a midwife is a woman is vital in her function

Ultimately, The Royal College of Midwives defined midwifery as a relationship between pregnant women and female midwives, making an assumption that women would feel more comfortable with a female midwife.

Janet Davis, Chief Executive and General Secretary for the RCN (Royal College of Nursing), too admits that: “Nursing and midwifery began as a mainly female profession and the RCN itself did not admit male members until the 1960s.’

Men, they believed, could not provide this type of care. This philosophy was challenged by various research.* Women who were cared for by men (male midwives) described them as gentle, calm, sympathetic and more understanding than some female midwives.

Of note was that some women preferred the care of a male, while 10% of women actually requested a male midwife.  It became clear that male midwives had a role to play in midwifery and were a valuable asset to the profession even in the early days of men entering the profession.

The Royal College of Midwives did later realise however, the part men had to play in the midwifery industry, and in 1982 they recommended that midwifery should be open to men.

A change in attitudes

Men have now been working as midwives for the past three decades in the UK.

A great example of this progress, can be seen from the experience of Stuart Hislop, Scotland’s first male midwife. Training as a male midwife in the 80’s was a different experience to what it is now, according to Stuart.

“There was a considerable amount of ‘hype’ around the inclusion of males in midwifery,” says the now 65 year old, who trained and practised midwifery from 1980 – 1982, and continued to teach nursing and midwifery thereafter.

Alarmingly, negative attitudes towards male midwives are still evident in some countries and it is thought that cultural and religious barriers may be a reason behind this. However, in some countries, real progress has been made, with male midwives, and nurses respected as caring and empathetic.

Reflecting on my own experiences as a male midwife, I often get some odd looks when entering the birth environment. More often than not the women’s birthing partners joke that I should be called a mid-man or mid-husband.

However, I find the explanation of the word midwife to the woman and her support people, “with woman” brings an understanding and acceptance to my presence in the woman’s birthing environment.

I remember one of my midwifery mentors telling me repeatedly early in my career “you will have to work hard as being a male means every little mistake will be noticed”.

Clearly the journey of a midwife is amazing and being a male has its challenges, but ultimately midwifery has led me to an incredible life, allowing me to share the precious time in a woman’s life for which I am humbled and honoured.

Still a way to go

In the 21st century it’s clear that we are making progress but there’s a long way to go.  Male midwives are still a marginal minority, and this is the case in the nursing profession as a whole.

Nursing in the UK in general is facing a shortage crisis and it’s a professional priority to try and attract more males to the sector.

What’s more according to data from The Office for National Statistics – the midwifery and nursing sectors are experiencing a gender pay gap, with men in midwifery earning 62% less than their female counterparts.

Males in nursing and midwifery jobs must be given every opportunity to accomplish their roles within the profession and take their rightful place within the wider health care community. Janet Davis agrees with this notion:

Men make incredible midwives and nurses. It is disappointing that they are such a small proportion of the workforce. We want to attract the best people into the profession, male or female. It is time to improve this situation. Men are missing out on a great profession and the health service is missing out on untapped potential.”

As Stuart Hislop says “Men could and should be a substantial part of the nursing and midwifery workforce. There are many men who could provide a great contribution to this industry.”

No job for a man? Meet the male midwives changing attitudes

Choose a midwife’s story:

Stuart Hislop, 65, former midwife, clinical teacher and nurse tutor (now retired)

Stuart Hislop was the first male midwife in Scotland when he started in the job in the early 1980s. Stuart has worked in the healthcare profession for his whole career, holding various posts including general nurse, mental health nurse, nurse teacher, clinical teacher and nurse tutor. 

How did you get into this profession?

I trained as a midwife in 1980 and worked as a staff midwife until mid 1982. Around the late 1970s two centres in UK were identified to offer training to males as midwives – Forth Valley and a London Hospital.

Nurse education at this time valued good general/ broad professional experience and the opportunity to undertake this course was both logical and desirable. At a personal level I was in awe of conception and foetal development and having witnessed some births I wanted to develop the skills of midwifery care.

What were your family/friends’ reaction to your choice of profession?

My wife was a nurse and midwife and completed her midwifery training the year before me. I was encouraged by her and I never felt any resistance from her or members of my family.

In truth the opposite occurred and I sensed that my family and others were behind my decision and felt enormous encouragement and support from these others throughout this time.

What was the reaction from expectant mothers in the maternity ward towards you?

There was a considerable amount of ‘hype’ around the inclusion of males in midwifery training, including press and other media attention.

This was also the case in the information sent to expectant mothers and informed them clearly they had the right to choose not to have male involved in their care if this was their desire.

I was only asked not to complete a task on two occasions. The support and interest from the expectant/ delivered mothers and their partners was incredible.

So many were truly fascinated about the concept of a ‘male midwife’. During the 18 months I was involved in midwifery I felt included and accepted.

What was the reaction from female midwives in the workplace?

Interesting and varied. I think there was open and silent resistance to recruiting males. I do think I was able to convince some that there was a place for males.

I would say that most of my staffing experience was in postnatal. I think I may have changed some of my female colleagues’ attitudes to males in midwifery.

How have attitudes changed towards male midwives since you got into this industry?

I am not sure they have. I have a regret that I was not able to continue a career in midwifery. I truly believe that males could and should be a substantial part of that workforce and that there are many men more than able who could provide a great contribution. The slow trickle of men into the profession is a disappointment.

Panagiotis Vakirtzis, 26, male midwife working at Walsall Healthcare NHS

Panagiotis has been working as a midwife since 2015. He trained for 4 years in his native Greece, after completing his compulsory national service. He has delivered over 40 babies.

What has been the reaction from expectant mothers in the maternity ward towards you?

Mostly positive. I think they are surprised or impressed to see something unexpected. Then there is a big smile or they look a bit confused and are waiting for me to speak.

I smile and I’m friendly and  I explaining the plan of care and most of the time they look happy. Whenever I experience concern over my presence it due to a patient’s religious beliefs or cultural reasons – which I completely respect.

What was the reaction from their partners?

I think they are happy. I think I can offer something positive because as a male I know how I would feel in their position. I can imagine their fears, their thoughts and I can reassure them that my aim as midwife is to provide high quality of care.

What is the best thing about your job?

Seeing the families come together, crying from happiness, talking to the babies, maternal breastfeeding, the cut of umbilical cord by the father – all have a strong symbolic meaning.

Looking after the mothers and babies postnatally a few hours after the delivery, supporting the families is extremely rewarding. The feedback is great and really exciting.

The job is hard, and there are high risk ladies, sick babies, emergencies, with lots of stress some of the time, but after I’ve been through all these experiences and head back home at the end of the day, I feel proud of myself and happy because the people are pleased with my care.

Jonathan Cliffe, 24, midwife working at Warrington and Halton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

Jonathan Cliffe, is one of the ‘new breed’ of male midwives. He graduated from Bangor University in September 2015 with a first class honours in midwifery, and as well as working as a midwife he sits on the British Journal of Midwifery editorial board and is an active supporter of the national charity Mummy’s Star.

What were your family/friend’s reaction to your choice of profession?

Slightly shocked! I am the only member of my immediate family to go to university, so I think that was an initial “proud” moment for the family, but when I told them it was to train to become a midwife, I think there were some initial mixed reactions, but as soon as they could see how much I enjoyed my new-found passion they knew I’d made the right choice.

What has been the reaction from expectant mothers in the maternity ward towards you?

Women have choice; choice about their care, where they have their care and who provides their care. This should never be forgotten. I very rarely encounter issues within practice regarding the fact I am a man providing midwifery care.

As a midwife, you have to respect women’s needs – physical, emotional, mental and cultural – so respecting their choice of care provider is an important aspect of midwifery care. I have a duty to respect the choice of a woman if her choice is to have a female midwife provide her care.

Do you think attitudes changed towards male midwives since you got into this industry?

Midwifery has predominantly always been a female profession, and in fact prior to the mid-70s, it was illegal for men to practice as midwives. In 2016 midwives are still predominantly female.

Why this is I have no real answer – perhaps a stereotypical perception from society, or a long standing history of midwives being female, but slowly more men are entering the midwifery profession.

I think in society now, stereotyping gender to specific job roles is becoming something of the past. I still think men as midwives still have some way to go, but I look at the nursing profession and see steps forward. 80-90 years ago nursing was predominantly women dominated, and now to see a male nurse is socially accepted as the norm.

What is the best thing about your job?

Midwifery, at times can be unpredictable, and therefore it would be difficult to describe a typical day or pinpoint a specific part of my role that I enjoy the most as every day brings something new (quite literally). No two births, no two days and no two women are ever the same. Every day is a special day.


Sources:

Banks, P. (1975). Intimate duties of the midwife. Midwives Chronicle and Nursing Notes, 88(1044), 15.
Darby, C. (1978). Where now for male midwives? Nursing Mirror, 147(13), 13-15.
McKenna, H. P. (1991). The developments and trends in relation to men practising midwifery: a review of the literature. Journal of advanced nursing, 16(4), 480-489.
Nicky, L. (2009). Woman-centred or women-centred care: does it matter? British Journal of Midwifery, 17(1), 12-16.
Speak, M., & Aitken-Swan, J. (1982). Male Midwives A Report of Two Studies. HMSO London.
The Royal Collage of Nursing.
The Higher Education Statistics Agency.

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2 Comments

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  1. Nigel Lewis Saturday, 1 Jul, 2017 at 5:03 pm

    I delivered my first child 17 years ago unfortunately still born placenta abruption that gave me the interest to wan to lear n to do it in fortunately I have no A levels no time to do course or the funds
    Male midwives seem to be more common in African my girlfriend has 5 in her hospital
    Men can do the job just as well

  2. Sean Tuesday, 25 Jul, 2017 at 8:05 pm

    I’m a 16 year old lad and I’m absolutely fascinated with midwifery.im seriously considering going for it in the future I haven’t told anybody but I’d love to be a midwife . Oh is it better to do nursing first then midwifery or just midwifery?

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