A recent Nurse-Family Partnership discussion outlined in Nurse.com sought to identify barriers to creating a more ethnically diverse workforce, as well as figuring out ways to create a more ethnically diverse workforce.
Several nursing leaders participated in the discussion, including Beverly Malone, a nurse who is the CEO of the National League for Nursing. She observed that patients prefer nurses who look like them; “It adds to their comfort level, to their ability to feel safe.”
According to 2008 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the diversity of the country was not matched by diversity of nurses. While 83.2% of RNs were white, only 65%.6 of the country was; and while 15.4% of the country was Hispanic, only 3.6% of RNs were. (Since then, the percentage of white people in the country has gone down further.)
The NFP symposium identified some of the barriers to diversity in nursing. One barrier is media exposure — when minority students don’t see ethnically diverse nurses on television, they sometimes don’t believe that nursing could be a career for them.
Another barrier can be a lack of interest in math and science, which is important to nursing. The panelists recommended encouraging young people to concentrate on math and science in middle school and then continue with those courses through high school. Elerie Archer, RN, BSN, noted that sometimes minorities shy away because of a lack of exposure to health science.
The cost of a nursing education can also be a barrier. Minority nurses often begin their careers as Certified Nursing Assistants or Licensed Practical Nurses. These nurses work full time while studying, and are more susceptible to distractions.
Archer said minority applicants need assistance with how to apply and write essays and to ensure the requirements align with the student’s goals.
Some students also must overcome cultural barriers. The profession is not held in high esteem in some cultures and, in others, family comes before education or a career.
“Professors often perceive [those students who put family ahead of their studies] as less serious,” Bergren said.
Minority nurses also can face challenges once on the job. The profession needs to open more doors for those nurses to advance their careers, Archer said. “It’s rare to find a minority nurse that our colleagues look up to as a leader,” she said. “We need mentoring.”
But, Archer added, the minority nurse also holds a responsibility to speak up, share his or her desire to move up, and serve on hospital committees to become known within the organization and to showcase his or her talents.
Sometimes minority nurses are not treated well in the workforce, Malone said. “It’s about culture, and whether you have a culture that is accepting of difference,” she said, suggesting that nursing must build a culture that embraces diversity in the workforce and is accepting of patients from all backgrounds.
Malone believes the profession needs an infrastructure and systems that help schools admit more minority students and organizations willing to fill vacancies with minority applicants. “It has to be addressed at multiple levels,” Malone said. “We treat it like any problem. We put together a strategic plan. We put together a task force to get this done and hold people accountable.”
Archer suggested nursing organizations partner with schools to educate guidance counselors about what the profession requires and the importance of a background in math and science.
“Young people need to be advised to keep their options open and not to drop their math or hard sciences,” Bergren said. “We need to change the view of a nursing career with those talented students looking for a challenging career working with people.”
Those considering or pursuing nursing also require a mentor, someone who can help them keep their career goals on track. “It’s not just getting them in, but getting them through,” Malone said. “They need support throughout the program.”
NFP provides scholarships to nursing students and plans to award scholarships to nurses to continue their education. The organization will look into helping nurses connect with resources for developing leadership skills and advancing their careers. The organization also plans to sponsor more discussions about the topic.
“This is a beginning,” Archer said. “For so long, people were afraid to talk about it because they thought of it as a racial issue, not a diversity issue.”