In the age of coronavirus, something has shifted in the perception of nurses that no other campaign has managed to achieve.
Usually considered the unsung heroes of hospitals, they are, at last, having their heyday as people realise just how vital our job is.
This pandemic has shown some of the best in humanity and for every person inspired by kindness, there will those whose dream will be to enter nursing – yet, for each one wanting to, how many won’t, because they think they’re the wrong sex?
As someone who has worked in the nursing profession for over 20 years, I believe there has never been a better time than now to address some of the inherent misconceptions about nursing that have stymied recruitment and blighted the profession with sexism.
It’s important because this is the kind of sexism that has contributed to the skills gap in the sector.
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Nursing’s recruitment shortage is a well documented crisis and it’s not hard to see that the talent shortfall isn’t helped by ingrained perceptions that nursing is a woman’s job. If such misconceptions didn’t exist, and more men were interested in it, I have no doubt that the skills gap would shrink.
In the meantime, this deficit determines life and death in the NHS’s response to crises like this pandemic.
My first job in healthcare was at a local nursing home. After school, I aimed to join the police, but I was told I was too young and needed more ‘life experience’. After achieving a Queen’s Commission into the RAF volunteer reserves, I wanted a job that served the public in some way, so I took the first role I could find that fitted that brief: in a care home.
I hated it initially. I felt completely out of my depth. And my mates mocked me: ‘Peter spends all day wiping bums!’
The real shift occurred when I was caring for a lady who had had a stroke, losing the use of one side. I helped her apply her makeup – something I had absolutely no experience of doing. I did feel uncomfortable at first, not really understanding why this was such a big deal to her until, later in the day, her family arrived and her daughter came over and personally thanked me.
She explained that, for her mum, it was extremely important for her self confidence that her husband did not see her without her ‘face on’. It was here that I understood a greater purpose for my role that was more than just perfunctory. Despite the devastating life changes this lady faced, I was helping her to be more like her old self; someone who took pride in her appearance.
I very quickly fell in love with the job after that and got huge satisfaction from the chats and bonds I made with the residents.
This was what inspired me to go into nursing. Back then, I didn’t really know men could be nurses. Then I became aware that they were often regarded negatively or had their sexuality questioned. When I started in the nursing home, there were only two care staff who were male.
Initially, some residents were reluctant to be cared for by a man, but this changed over time the more they got used to it. As I progressed in my nursing career, the jokes and inappropriate comments about my job lessened, although there were many occasions where I have been asked ‘are you gay?’ or ‘were you not clever enough to be a doctor?’
I remember attending an RAF event and staying in a large dorm room overnight with a group of colleagues. Initially, one gent was on the phone to his partner and spoke loudly to her about how he was spending the night in a room with a nurse in an attempt to wind her up.
He then made a point of reassuring her that I wasn’t a ‘proper nurse’ as I didn’t have the figure for it, and made some reference instead to his perception of my sexuality.
Another time, I recall entering a cubicle and the patient and his family started to giggle. When I asked what was wrong, I was told that they thought it was very funny I was a man, and ‘couldn’t I get a proper job?’
Progressing up the ranks, I soon realised that my career titles would become an endless source of amusement, too. The term Ward Sister was thankfully changed to Charge Nurse, but many people still don’t know what that actually is, so I often would need to clarify that I’m a ‘male Sister’.
When I became a Matron, there was no male equivalent for that so, again, I had lots of questions and jokes made at my expense. It was only when my own children started masking the fact that I was a nurse to their friends that I felt compelled to join a campaign addressing these sexist ideas at the grassroots.
My kids avoided discussion outside the family circle, not necessarily because they were ashamed of what I did, but because it was easier to just not explain. I remember one of my daughter’s friends correcting her when she said that I was a nurse. ‘No, he’s a doctor, men can’t be nurses,’ her friend had said.
Meanwhile, my son used to tell people that I was a doctor to prevent his friends from joking about it.
Sexism and shame are learnt social constructs. Children don’t have a cap on their dreams or imaginations until narratives are told – by parents, friends, relatives – about the expectations of what constitutes a ‘man’s’ or a ‘woman’s job’.
It makes sense to tackle these harmful ideas at the stage where they are seeded, so this year I became involved in the production of a story book called My Daddy Is A Nurse with a small publisher called Butterfly Books.
For me, it was a way of being able to reconcile some of these issues; to inspire and educate children about the world of nursing and to address misconceptions at the earliest years before such notions become ingrained.
I like how Butterfly Books have helped evolve children’s bedtime stories to focus on inspirational role models that don’t necessarily wear capes; people that break the mould and set new precedents.
Children need to see positive role models of men working in caring professions
Ultimately, it’s an empowering campaign that subverts expectations around professions that have reinforced a gender divide. The men who work as nurses are fiercely proud of their achievements and the vital role they play in healthcare.
Their masculinity isn’t threatened; they are emboldened to have made it in a career that prizes intelligence, stamina, technical skills and empathy above all else. Toxic notions of masculinity must be tackled in every instance to recast a tired narrative. And children need to see positive role models of men working in caring professions.
In a post-Covid age, will sexist jokes about nurses – particularly men working in nursing – at last abate? If not for being wrong, then because it’s become bad taste; an insult to all that nurses have done and continue to do for people at their frailest and most vulnerable.
I’m hopeful. If gender parity in nursing is one of the only positive things to come out of Covid then, in a sense, we’ve defeated another pernicious, invisible ‘disease’.
Prior to this crisis last year, Nursing Now England, together with colleagues from NHS England and NHS Improvement Campaigns, launched a TV advert as part of the ‘We are the NHS’ campaign.
It set out to bridge the gender divide and skills gap in nursing by showing the varied work men undertake as nurses – from caring for babies in neonatal intensive care to treating young victims of violent street crimes, be that in hospitals across England or at makeshift medical centres in war zones abroad.
It resulted in a record breaking surge in male school leavers applying to be nurses. With continuous campaigning, I’m optimistic that more men will enter the sector.
Appreciation for the profession has peaked to such an extent that nurses, in some senses, are regarded as saints. But our ask is much simpler than that.
We’ve never been in it for the local hero status or minor celebrity that Covid has, in a sense, momentarily given us. Rather, we want to be seen as a collective of people – men and women of equal worth, intelligence and ability – who go home each night knowing they’ve made a difference to someone’s life.
Peter Towns is Associate Director of Nursing, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NHS Foundation Trust. My Daddy Is A Nurse is available to buy at Butterfly Books
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