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Nursin' USA - Language barriers

Our resident US nurse Sara Morgan wonders would more men go into nursing in the UK if the inherently feminine titles such as ‘sister’ and ‘matron’ were eliminated?

The first time someone addressed me as ‘Sister’, I had two reactions: the first was to look around for the only person on earth who has the biological qualifications to address me in that way —my sibling.  The second was to revert back to memories of the parochial school that I attended as a child, where many of the teachers were nuns and who were also referred to as sisters.  In short, the title of ‘sister’ didn’t seem to fit me well and it made me slightly uncomfortable.  And if it made me, a woman, uncomfortable, what effect must it have on our male colleagues?

I am constantly amazed as the sheer number of titles that exist in the nursing profession in the UK.  On the wards alone, there are junior and senior staff nurses, junior and senior sisters, matrons, charge nurses (not to be confused with the nurse-in-charge, since they are not always the same thing) and ward managers. 

Some of these titles cover the same role in male and female versions and some just differ by hospital trust or PCT. In an era when we are trying to make it as easy as possible for patients to identify who is who, wouldn’t it help to have as few titles as possible?  It would make it easier for our colleagues, too. I am sure that there has been many a junior doctor who has tried to find ‘sister’ only to realize after wasting precious time that he was looking for a man, not a woman.

Here are some of my areas of confusion: on different wards that I have been on recently, the term ‘charge nurse’ has referred to either a male in a Band 6 position, or the ward manager or the nurse-in-charge for the day, regardless of gender.  And what do you call a matron who is male?  More importantly, what would they like to be called?

At home, we have three broad categories of labels: staff nurses, charge nurses (these are staff nurses who are experienced enough and have the necessary skills to run a shift in the area that they work.  They are only called ‘charge nurse’ on shifts when they are allocated to that role—so there is a single charge nurse at any given time) and nurse managers, who handle the hiring, firing, annual reviews and budget for each ward.  We all wore the same uniform and had the same title – nurse— on our name tags.  Think of the money that the hospital saved on having a single uniform and by not having to order new name tags every time someone changed bands.

But, back to my original question:  would more men go into nursing in the UK if we jettisoned the outdated labels?  I understand wanting to honor the history of the profession, but does that mean that we have to desperately cling to it?  If we wanted to keep to our history that much, we would be a profession of capped, skirted and single women. Clearly, we decided that such restrictive criteria were detrimental to the profession.  Isn’t it time to start seeing gender-specific titles in the same way?

About Sara Morgan

Sara Morgan trained and practiced as a nurse in the United States before coming to work in the UK.  She has worked as both a nurse practitioner and as a lead nurse on the Productive Ward initiative.

Readers' comments (20)

  • I am a male Matron I don't have a problem with the title but a lot of other people do. Patients and staff are surprised that a man is a matron or that there isn't another title for a male matron. In addition people remember the Carry on films and Hatty Jakes ( stereotypical matron). Well at least I get to generate a few laughs, and if you can carry this role of as a man enough said.

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  • I agree that there are too many titles used by the nursing profession in the UK. However, I don't see it is a 'lesson from across the pond' and find this blog pretty boring. Surely there is something more interesting to report than hospital corners and job titles?

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  • Personally, I can't see a problem. I was a ward manager and was always addressed as sister, as are many other ward managers I know. Patients, relatives and doctors can easily identify who is who by the different uniforms worn, white by HCAs, pale blue by staff nurses and navy blue by sisters. How very confusing it must be for people to recognise the nurse in charge if all nurses wear the same uniform and a badge saying nurse? This seems a pointless article to me, most of us nurses are proud of our profession and proud of the grades we reach. Our job titles do not matter half as much as our patients knowing who is who does.

    The US obviously has differing attitudes to job titles, but it really isn't important. Please don't criticise us for being different to you.

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  • There are two reasons why Sister and Matron should be consigned to history.
    1) They are sexist and may become illegal within the UK. Women are the first to complain if the phrase chairman is used, particularly if the post is held by a woman.

    2) They are remnants from a religious past that may seem irrelevant in our multi-cultural environment.
    Of course instead of Charge Nurse we could adopt Brother and Pater for Matron

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  • How about we get the word "Nurse" off of the uniforms and badges of untrained children with no health care experience/education/training who are dumped onto the wards...staffing the place instead of nurses and hca's.

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  • Please enough of the asinine articles-

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  • What utter nonsense!!! "Untrained children?" Do me a favour and stop with the patronising not to mention ageist claptrap. As a staff nurse and former student nurse i have never once witnessed students staffing clinical areas, they are there to learn...i have however had the misfortune to encounter ageism, how about we get rid of THAT?

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  • Obviously being called as a "SISTER" is somewhat offensive to male gender. When I heard somebody called me for the first time (sister,sister--- my reaction was I ignored her thinking that I wasnt the one that she needed.) This was in ABUDHABI UAE where hospitals formerly run by GN from UK.Later on I get used to it. Personally it sounds irritating to be called sister. Mister or Nurse would be appropriate for me as a charge nurse in my present position

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  • I hate anyone criticising the NHS. Especially from a representative of a country whose citizens can only access treatment if they have the right kind of insurance.

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  • This article may seem frothy but it draws attention to a serious point. Feminise the job title devalue its status. Nursing like all other professions should be gender neutral

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  • I hope Sara Morgan is in UK to learn something and gain experience and not just to nitpick over fairly trivial matters. Most male nurses are pretty good at asserting themselves and don't care too much about titles. I have yet to meet a male nurse who had to think twice about starting nurse training because he was worried about the title that he may hold after qualification. How many male nurses did Sara encounter to come to these conclusions?

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  • I am a Canadian Registered Nurse employed with Correctional Service of Canada. Presently, I work directly with the Manager of Public Health, providing information related to issues that can and do impact on our incarcerated inmates within the Province of Ontario.

    The information that is provided daily within the Nursing Times Net site has become an invaluable resource, providing timely information and connections to sites which allow me to present perspectives from the United Kingdom. As a result, my reports incorporate information from the UK, North America and other countries that I research and present as much as possible a global picture.

    My thought of Ms. Morgan's comments are that she is presenting interesting and professional insights and there is no doubt in my mind that they are intended for consideration only As a professional body, these insights should be welcomed. It is how we learn and progress.

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  • Roberts comment - I am very interested to learn from other countries and regularly read a US nursing site which has excellent information - however this blog does not come anywhere near that kind of level of sharing clinical information. Surely your reports do not contain information on hospital corners and job titles?

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  • Latterlife Midwife

    I think this blog is mostly meant to be light-weight in nature, which makes it quite enjoyable, imo! There are a million other blogs out there at every level of clinical depth, so there's no shortage for those who find this too frivolous.

    As another American happily practicing in the UK, I relate to what's been written so far. Certainly we can learn from each other, especially since it's not difficult to pick apart one's own medical culture - I love the NHS and deeply desire something similar in the USA. But there is no doubt a few simple things could change here to make for better patient and staff experiences - i.e. fitted sheets; at least at the top end!!!

    I suggest some UK readers lighten up a bit when exposed to what they see as criticism - maybe take the opportunity to see their system from another angle? It's really clear there is a lot of resentment towards Americans...still!

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  • personally I think the system in the UK is very petty and rather pathetic. The profession seems totally obsessed with their title, band and colour of their uniform instead of concentrating on their purpose which is individualised patient care of the highest standards.This is the only concern of patients and all the beauracracy and social comparison puts up barriers, makes for stereotyping and discrimination and destroys effective teamwork. In other countries nurses, and all those involved in patient care, work together as a pluridisciplinary team at the same level, all with their own individual names (with name badges to identify them and possibly colours to distinguish between the different professions) to help the patients identify them and to help the patients reach their single goal of restored health.

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  • Lets just abolish titles and coloured uniforms and get on with the issue of nursing patients. Look at all the time that has been wasted in writing these useless comments!

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  • From the Concise Oxford Dictionary
    What a matron is?
    So why are people calling themselves 'male matrons' - this is contradiction in terms and any male taking on such a title must be extremely silly! I wouldn't want to work in a hospital with a 'male matron' as a boss or respect anyone who is staid enough to call themselves 'matron' for that matter as this label is totally outmoded and meaningless.

    n noun
    1 a woman in charge of domestic and medical arrangements at a boarding school or other establishment. ØBritish the woman in charge of the nursing in a hospital (official term now senior nursing officer). Øchiefly United States a female prison officer.
    2 a married woman, typically one who is dignified or staid.

    matronhood noun
    matronly adjective

    Middle English: from Old French matrone, from Latin matrona, from mater, matr- 'mother'.

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  • Answer to:
    Anonymous | 12-Feb-2010 11:30 am

    I hate anyone criticising the NHS. Especially from a representative of a country whose citizens can only access treatment if they have the right kind of insurance.

    It is only when those working in the NHS learn to take criticism from outside who have experience of services which function that there will ever been any improvement. Complacency and self-satisfaction don't leave room for progress and quality patient care.

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  • comment above - pathetic

    services will never improve if you can't take criticism.

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  • From the Oxford Dictionary

    as above Sister, like Matron applies to women and both totally outdated and meaningless labels.

    Germans changed their job description from Krankenschwester or Schwester to Pflegefachfrau to respect a profession with academic qualifications and not the original religious sister which are totally unrelated to lay nurses. As for men, as the dictionary says these are female nouns and men should be ashamed of using them as it gives a false impression!

    n noun
    1 a woman or girl in relation to other daughters and sons of her parents.
    2 a female friend or associate. Øa fellow woman. ØNorth American a fellow black woman.
    3 a member of a religious order of women.
    4 (often Sister) British a senior female nurse.
    5 [as modifier] denoting an organization or a place which bears a relationship to another of common origin or allegiance.

    sisterliness noun
    sisterly adjective

    Old English, of Germanic origin.

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