Calling all nurses working in the time of Covid-19
Click for more info

Friday, 25 August 2017

Challenging images of nursing

The image of nurses – that old chestnut or should I say sexy stereotype – has been back in the news again. A group of well intentioned men dressed up as nurses to raise money for their local community health trust.  But the Trust rejected the £2,500 on the grounds that their actions were “...wrong, outdated and insulting to the profession”.  The fundraiser is an annual event in Ludlow, Shropshire, raising money for the NHS.  I have some sympathy with the men – they meant well and let’s face it as they said, this has been going on for 30 years and they’ve not had any complaints.  Oh no. Stop there, something that’s been going on for 30 years is probably long due an overhaul and the age old (sorry!) ‘had no complaints’ argument is one that Everyday Sexism Project and every woman will be familiar with.

It’s laudable to raise money for the Trust’s ECG equipment but really, is there any need for men to dress up as female nurses? There are myriad ways of raising money that could be just as or possibly more effective. “We’ve always done it this way”, doesn’t make it right. However, on the other hand my reaction to this particular sort of drag humour is that it is funny because of how ridiculous the men look as they deliberately ineptly try to wear women’s clothing. I object far more to serious television dramas that depict nurses with dresses just a little too short, or wearing heels; and of course with nothing sensible to do or intelligent to say.

Rituals and Myths in Nursing will explore some of the traditions behind nursing uniform – it’s military history reflected in the badges, buckles and starch – as well as exploring the mythical view of nurses as angels and/or sexual objects.

 A recent study by Emeritus Professor of Nursing at Oxford Brookes University, June Girvin and colleagues, explored the contemporary public perceptions of nursing. It identified four main themes:
1.     Media portrayal of nursing as a troubled profession
2.     Entertainment value in demeaning nursing
3.     Role of incongruity – nursing trusted but not respected
4.     Nursing roles remain poorly understood

The systematic review examined papers from January 2010 to September 2015 so at a time of high profile failures in hospital care, which will no doubt have coloured some of the reporting. However, the media is fairly negative about nursing depicting it as a ‘troubled profession’ for example, portraying the move to higher education negatively. This debate has raged since Florence was a girl as if education is a ‘bad’ thing for nurses (and in such a female dominated profession, I think, by implication, women in general). Indeed, schools and parents in the UK do not encourage students into nursing – they are much more likely to in the US where nursing has a better profile.

In film and social media, attractive, successful, intelligent and educated women were seen as incompatible with nursing.The study found that gender prejudices remain prevalent in the public image of nursing – female nurses portrayed as sexual playthings; male nurses still, in the 21st century, characterised as effeminate.

Despite this the public generally have a positive perception of nursing but not surprisingly have little understanding of the complexity and diversity of the role. I think they are not alone. Nurses are poorly supported in their learning development. Paying for their own professional development is standard and very often they attend any educational or training days in their own time. It is a simple step from here to understanding how easy it is for nurses to be so poorly paid and why they have seen their jobs downgraded.

This attitude to nurses, so often served out to teachers too (another female dominated profession) needs to be challenged. All too often it is dismissed as either about nurses or about being female and actually it is both those things that cause nursing to be so badly treated. Challenging stereotypes as Shropshire community health NHS trust has done is an important public step. It's a shame that the Royal College of Nursing apparently decided not to comment.  This is where the immense reach it has as a union could have been put to good effect. Scrap the Cap doesn’t tell enough of the story. The profession needs to demonstrate strength, depth and challenge on all levels.