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Global campaign calls for gender equality across nurse leadership

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Leaders of a national nursing campaign are lobbying to strengthen nurse leadership and gender equality across the global nursing workforce, following a new report highlighting that only 25% of health system leaders are women.

Based on an international survey of more than 2,500 current and former nurses across 117 countries, those behind the Nursing Now campaign have today published a report into leadership development.

“Abandon any notions of ‘women’s work’ and nurses will change the world”

Annette Kennedy

The report, titled Investing in the power of leadership highlights some of the biggest barriers women face in becoming leaders of the profession, noting that although 70% of the global health and social care workforce are female, just 25% of leadership roles are occupied by women.

The research by Nursing Now found that the perception of nursing as a “feminine” and “nurturing” profession and the “devaluation” of women’s work, played a part in preventing female nurses from climbing the career ladder.

The report stated that “nurses face stereotypes of women and nurses”, and that “nurses’ competency and authority are distrusted”.

Nurses who responded to the survey also highlighted the “glass escalator” effect, in which they see rapid advancement of their male colleagues with less experience due to their “ability to talk the talk”.

According to the report, nurses perceived that there were “less hoops to jump through” for men, meaning they had the opportunity to move quickly up the ladder.

Survey results also found respondents “overwhelmingly” reported that challenges balancing unpaid and paid work affect women more than men, and that a lack of self-confidence was also a barrier to assuming leadership roles.

“The challenge is for employers to create and sustain fully inclusive workplaces”

Wendy Irwin

Overall, authors of the report identified that the top factors for preventing nurses from pursuing higher-level positions were, having the equipment and resources to perform the job, leadership training and a good and fair salary.

Following the findings of the report, Nursing Now is calling for increased investments in nurse education and leadership development, and for transformed policy and regulatory environments and health professional education system.

The campaigners have offered a series of recommendations for policymakers and implementers to help strengthen nurse leadership and gender equality across the workforce.

It is lobbying to change the perception of nursing as a “soft science” and “elevate the status and profile of nursing in the health sector”.

It also wants policy makers to address the drivers of “occupational sex segregation” and “eliminate employer discrimination” based on gender.

Nurses should also be given funding for leadership development, the report noted, as well as the “flexibility” to fulfil both formal work and unpaid care responsibilities, including home life.

Executive director of Nursing Now, Dr Barbara Stillwell, said: “There is massive potential for health and economic returns when you invest in the health workforce – and particularly nurses.”

“We need to deplore all forms of sexism and other exclusionary belief systems which are often embedded into nursing workplace cultures”

Wendy Irwin

“But gender-related barriers are still preventing us from fully unlocking this potential,” she said.

Dr Stillwell noted that the campaign hears “over and over from nurses that they are being held back as leaders”.

The report was authored by Dr Stillwell, Constance Newman of IntraHealth, Samantha Rick of IntraHealth, and Katia Peterson of In Situ Research.

Senior team leader of gender equality and health at IntraHealth, Ms Newman, said: “It’s essential that the direct perspectives of nurses on issues of gender equality and leadership inform the global agenda on nursing and universal health coverage.

“That’s why we conducted this research, to better understand and aggregate the extent to and ways in which nurses experience gender barriers as impediments to leadership, so they can be addressed by global, national, and institutional policymakers,” she added.

Launched in 2018, Nursing Now is a three-year global campaign being run in collaboration with the International Council of Nurses (ICN) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

President of the ICN, Annette Kennedy, said the voices of those who contributed to the report “must be heard by governments and healthcare leaders around the world”.

“Nurses can be the answer to so many of the world’s health problems – but only if there are serious, sustained efforts to remove the obstacles that are routinely put in their way,” she said.

“Give them a level playing field, remove the glass ceiling and abandon any notions of ‘women’s work’ and nurses will change the world,” she added.

Also responding to the report, Wendy Irwin, diversity and equalities lead for the Royal College of Nursing, said: “The complaints in the report about gender issues raised by nurses and midwives around the world will be familiar to many in Britain.

International Council of Nurses

Annette Kennedy

Annette Kennedy

“Skill, talent and ability are equally distributed across the population, but equality of opportunity is not,” she said.

Ms Irwin noted that the experiences cited in the report, such as being passed over for promotion in favour of male candidates with less qualifications, and constantly being told that nursing is a “nurturing” and “female” profession, were all issues that members of the college have raised before.

“The challenge is for employers to create and sustain fully inclusive workplaces which are environments in which all nurses are able to fulfil their potential,” she said.

“We need to deplore all forms of sexism and other exclusionary belief systems which are often embedded into nursing workplace cultures,” Ms Irwin said.

“A good barometer of change in this arena is when female nurses from a diverse range of backgrounds routinely take their place on trust boards and in senior leadership posts,” she said.

The report is a product of a research collaboration among IntraHealth International, Nursing Now and Johnson & Johnson.

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