Health and education sectors can unlock recruitment potential by promoting gender balance in healthcare

New research encourages greater gender balance in nursing and healthcare.

Two healthcare workers talking whilst walking up the stairs

New research, commissioned by the Office for Students (OfS), has made a series of recommendations for promoting greater gender balance in nursing and healthcare courses such as podiatry, speech and language therapy, and radiography.

Increasing male participation in nursing and wider healthcare subjects will encourage equal opportunities for both men and women to pursue these careers, ensure that England’s healthcare workforce reflects the population it serves, and reduce the current skills shortage in these fields. 

Overall, in England 90 per cent of nursing students and 75 per cent of allied health students are female – although mental health nursing had a notably high proportion of male students with 24 per cent.

Analysis for the report, which was written by Research Works for the OfS, showed significant variation in male participation between healthcare subjects. For example:

  • subjects with the highest male participation included paramedic science with 43 per cent, orthotics and prosthetics with 40 per cent, and physiotherapy with 39 per cent
  • conversely, children's nursing courses had only three per cent male students, speech and language therapy five per cent, and adult nursing nine per cent
  • male participation increased with age across several subjects. Men made up nine per cent of allied health and nursing students aged 21 and under, compared with 17 per cent of those aged over 21.

The report identifies a number of barriers to wider male participation. It identifies low awareness of the diversity and scope of nursing and allied health careers, negative perceptions of pay and workload, and gender stereotypes such as gendered perceptions of 'care' as factors having an impact on male participation.

It states that increases in male participation can be achieved, but all those involved in advertising nursing and allied health subjects to prospective students will need to ensure that study and career advice promotes healthcare courses in ways that are attractive to both male and female students.

Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students, said:

'The OfS has funded several projects focused on increasing participation in nursing and allied health subjects, which have sparked a range of innovative approaches. But as this report shows, there is more that can be done to remove barriers that may be preventing talented students from pursuing rewarding healthcare careers.

'It is essential that our country’s healthcare system is representative of the public it serves and has a well-trained workforce capable of providing the many types of care people need. Universities and colleges have a significant role to play in delivering this, working with schools, colleges and employers in the health service. This report provides welcome guidance on the steps we can all take and emphasises the need for collaborative approaches. We will consider its recommendations carefully as we develop our strategy to improve mature student participation and support the government with its goal to increase the number of trained NHS nurses.'

Mark Radford, Chief Nurse at Health Education England, said:

'Becoming a nurse was undoubtedly the greatest decision I ever made and has been an exciting and fulfilling career. Nursing is a career for all and as an expert clinician you make the difference to patients each and every day. So I welcome the recommendations to raise awareness of the graduate nursing education and career roles for men and women alike. I welcome all initiatives that break down gender stereotypes to increase recruitment through a range of targeted initiatives by employers and in schools.'

According to the report's recommendations:

  • universities and colleges should use initiatives to increase male participation in nursing and allied health subjects, develop mentoring programmes with male role models, and consider how to build greater awareness through open days, for example holding common events for nursing, allied health and medicine
  • healthcare employers should use their spaces with high public traffic to promote the diversity of healthcare careers and do so in gender sensitive ways, increase opportunities for work experience and shadowing, and increase opportunities for internal career progression, for example through apprenticeships
  • schools and career advisers should establish partnerships with local health employers and ensure information is provided to all students with interests and skills relevant to healthcare careers
  • the government should encourage mature student entry into these professions and ensure the NHS People Plan drives action to increase male participation.

The OfS has funded a range of projects through the Strategic Interventions in Health Education Disciplines (SIHED) programme aiming to attract more students to nursing and allied health courses, with some projects specifically focusing on increasing male participation. The report recommends the OfS encourages dissemination of good practice in promoting healthcare to male students through its National Collaboration Outreach Programme (NCOP) and considers how its policies around widening participation can be used to address gender inequality.

For further information contact Richard Foord on 0117 905 7676 or [email protected].

Read the report


  1. This report is independent research commissioned by the OfS. It does not necessarily reflect our views or position.
  2. Government funding for nursing, midwifery and allied health courses transferred to the Higher Education Funding Council for England/the OfS from September 2017. The Strategic Interventions in Health Education Disciplines (SIHED) programme is part of a package of support for small, specialist health disciplines in these areas.
  3. In 2018 a SIHED Challenge Fund was launched to encourage the development of new approaches to the delivery of, or recruitment to, healthcare courses. The first funding round was restricted to podiatry and therapeutic radiography. A second round was launched in 2019. This was wider in scope, open to all existing providers of higher education in nursing, midwifery and allied health. Several projects centred on, or included work to increase male participation. Find out more about the funded projects.
Published 22 January 2020

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