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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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