Recognizing the Value of Diversity in Nursing

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The United States has been called a cultural melting pot, but some sectors in our society are more inclusive and diverse than others.

As a current or aspiring nurse considering a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree, you may be particularly interested in knowing the benefits of diversity in nursing.

While there have been improvements in nursing diversity over the past few decades, there are still many more that can be made. Here’s a look at why diversity in nursing is so important, where the nursing workforce stands now, and what initiatives are in place to increase diversity among nurses.

two nurses discuss a patient's chart

Why is diversity important in healthcare?

As patient populations become increasingly diverse, there’s a growing need for nurses who can treat and collaborate with patients from a culturally sensitive perspective. But beyond that, there’s also a need for a more diverse nurse workforce.

According to the American Nurses Association, diversity awareness is the “acknowledgement and appreciation of the existence of differences in attitudes, beliefs, thoughts, and priorities in the health-seeking behaviors of different patient populations. It reflects the nursing profession’s contract with society and our responsibility to act according to a strong code of ethics, which means to be aware of our own attitudes, beliefs, thoughts, and priorities in providing care to individual patients, families, communities, and populations.”

Diversity in the United States is constantly increasing, so it’s important to show similar diversity in nursing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2016, roughly 60% of the population identified as white alone (non-Hispanic/Latino), around 13% of people identified as Black or African American, 2% American Indian or Alaska Native, and 6% Asian. About 18% identified as being of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity.

Diversity in nursing is about more than ethnicity, however. The American Nurses Association includes factors such as gender, sexual orientation, mental health, socioeconomic status, ethnic heritage, age, disability, and physical characteristics.

Even though representation is increasing for minority groups throughout the country, diversity can be more prominent in some places than in others. For example, Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the country, according to the Los Angeles Times.

But even in Houston and other major cities with diverse populations, there may be areas that house a larger population of a certain ethnic group. Increasing diversity among nurses in Houston and other metropolitan areas may be especially important to patient care in these areas.

Where does diversity in nursing stand now?

A fact sheet from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) outlined specific details about diversity in the nursing workforce in 2008. At the time, nurses from minority backgrounds represented 16.8% of the registered nurse (RN) workforce.

The RN population breakdown was roughly 5.8% Asian/Native Hawaiian, 5.4% Black or African American, 3.6% Hispanic, less than half a percent Native American/Alaska Native, and 1.7% multiracial.

Diversity among nurses has been on the rise ever since, and in 2016, AACN data indicated that roughly 30% of the undergraduate and graduate nursing student population came from multicultural backgrounds.

In fact, the same data from the AACN showed that there were two states — California and Hawaii — where undergraduate and graduate nursing students from diverse backgrounds outnumbered white students.

Moreover, nonwhite nurses have been shown to pursue advanced nursing degrees at a rate higher than that of their white counterparts. According to 2019 AACN report, nursing students from minority backgrounds represented 34.7% of master’s students, 33% of students in research-focused doctoral programs, and 34.6% of Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) students.

In addition to the racial components of diversity in nursing, gender imbalance is also a concern in the nursing workforce. According to AACN, in 2010, men made up only 6.2% of nurses nationwide. That figure increased to more than 9% by 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And by 2016, 12% of undergraduate and graduate nursing students were men, according to AACN.

Diversity in the nursing profession can provide much needed sensitivity and understanding to the patient experience. In fact, the unique contributions of nurses from various backgrounds allows them to help advance the healthcare process by addressing patients in their native language or identifying cultural and religious sensitivities without unnecessary delay.

Research from the 2019 AACN study also revealed that men comprised 12.2% of master’s students, 11.2% of research-focused doctoral students, and 13.4 % of DNP students.

While the number of male nursing professionals has increased over the years, there is still a strong need for more gender diversity in this field.

What efforts are in place to increase diversity in nursing?

In recent years, there have been ongoing efforts across various nursing programs to attract students from different backgrounds.

For example, the Embracing the Challenge (ETC) project aimed to increase the number “of ethnic minority and disadvantaged nurses by targeting areas in southwestern Massachusetts, including two predominantly Hispanic and African American communities.” ETC helped increase the number of multicultural nurses from 300 to 450 over a three-year period.

Nursing programs aren’t the only entities striving to increase nursing diversity. Campaign for Action is another example. This organization focuses on several goals related to nursing, one of which centers on increasing diversity.

Yet another organization, Exceptional Nurse, strives to provide resources for nurses and nursing students with disabilities — who can often be overlooked when discussing diversity in the nursing profession.

Breaking down gender stereotypes may be critical to drawing more men into the nursing workforce. Quoted in a Nursing Times article, one male nurse stated, “I suspect most of my health-visiting colleagues were unsure about whether [men] ought to be doing the job. It never came out overtly, but covertly, I think it was there.”

According to an article from The New York Times in which a dozen male nurses were interviewed, “some were drawn to the caregiving, others to the adrenaline of the work. It’s a reliable, well-paying job at a time when that’s hard to come by,” one nurse said.

There are even dedicated support systems in place for male nurses, such as the American Association for Men in Nursing.

In 2018, AACN formed the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Group (DEIG) to provide expert guidance to both the AACN and its member schools on ways to explore long-term, sustainable, and strategic goals that are designed to promote and support diversity in the nursing field.

DEIG members work together to explore innovative approaches to enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in academic nursing and the nursing workforce. DEIG members share evidence-based practices, organize networking forums, and mentor new diversity officers in nursing schools.

As part of its overall goal, DEIG is seeks representation from all schools of nursing.

What is the future of diversity in nursing?

The growing focus on diversity in nursing could help current and aspiring nurses develop a deeper understanding of how to support and engage patients from a range of different backgrounds. As someone who’s looking to pursue advanced nursing, it’s important for you to be equipped with the right skills so you may provide a higher quality of care for your patients.

It takes brave leaders in nursing to help effect positive change in representation. As an aspiring nurse leader, you may choose to establish diversity as a guiding institutional value, which will allow you to take actions such as implementing cultural diversity training and ensuring that multiculturalism is adequately represented throughout your healthcare organization.

Earning your advanced nursing degree can provide the support and credibility you need as you promote these kinds of positive changes — and achieve your personal and career goals. To learn more, check out Maryville University’s online Doctor of Nursing Practice program.


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, “Enhancing Diversity in the Workforce”

American Nurses Association, “Diversity Awareness”

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, “Table 11a. Race/Ethnicity of Students Enrolled from Generic (Entry-Level) Baccalaureate, RN-to-Baccalaureate, Total Baccalaureate”

Master’s, Research-Focused Doctoral, and DNP Programs in Nursing, 2010-2019. Campaign for Action, “Increasing Diversity in Nursing”

Hispanic Health Care International, “Embracing the Challenge: Increasing Workforce Diversity in Nursing”

Los Angeles Times, “How Houston Has Become the Most Diverse Place in America”

National Nurses United

The New York Times, “‘Forget About The Stigma’: Male Nurses Explain Why Nursing Is a Job of the Future for Men”

Nursing Times, “Why Are There So Few Men in Nursing?”

PubMed Central, “Increasing Racial/Ethnic Diversity in Nursing to Reduce Health Disparities and Achieve Health Equity”

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “Why Diversity in the Nursing Workforce Matters”

U.S. Census, QuickFacts