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'Is it sexism that prevents nursing from having a voice?'


Apparently, astronomers have found another candidate for a habitable planet and, in relative terms, it is not too far away.

The unnamed planet was hiding near a star known as HD40307 and is seven times the size of our earth. Astronomers interested in upgrading are drawn to the planet’s period features, refurbished bathrooms and apparent capacity to produce liquid water, which is a good sign in a prospective planet.

Should we be too quick to abandon the planet? And should we take stuff with us? Such as fish, vegetables or clinical psychologists? While there may be many reasons, from coastal erosion to Nick Clegg, for wanting to build a spaceship, perhaps we ought to stay a while and help sort things out a bit. If only until after Christmas.

I was reading recently about the leaking of the new national curriculum. What was striking was the lack of expertise implicit in it. Teachers asked to comment on it had to stop laughing before noting that, for example, we might want to aim a bit higher than teaching 13-year-olds how to write “business letters in the correct form”. “Depressingly predictable,” they said.

Documents like this are an attempt to shape social policy and the culture that emerges from it in a way that reflects government values, but they also demonstrate a disinvestment in expertise. Culturally, we appear no more inclined to ask teachers about education than we are to ask nurses about healthcare provision.

It’s interesting that when it comes to policy development, nurses appear to be something to be managed rather than a resource to benefit from and it seems that nursing has grown so used to that it expects nothing more.

I suppose the obvious reason for that is the perception that nurses will oppose change and therefore cannot be included. Or it may be that nursing is so poorly represented politically it is hard to consult them meaningfully. But I can’t help wondering if maybe it has something to do with gender, still.

In the public eye, nursing remains a female profession and it seems an insidious and deeply ingrained institutional sexism prevents any form of real consultation, partnership or mining into the expertise of nurses. It was telling (and went widely undiscussed) that, when the BBC chairman was asked recently when the new director general would be in place, he replied: “I think he will need to be in place quite soon.” It’ll be another bloke then. The same day, a report into public appointments revealed not only a massive disparity between men and women being appointed to top jobs continues (14 men to one woman at the Department of Energy, for example) but also that women in high-flying jobs will earn £500,000 less in their working lives than men with identical careers. Luck? Irrelevant? Of course not.

Creating the illusion that sexism is a thing of the past is one of the cleverest things men have done in years and, ironically perhaps, it is the stoic attempts of modern nursing to demonstrate it is more than equal to any profession in its capacity to adapt, develop and respond to demand that has compounded the apparent political powerlessness of the profession. Nursing doesn’t confront. It is still too busy proving how capable it is.

I could be wrong - maybe it has nothing to do with gender. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. Sexism is a thing of the past; I understand the Spice Girls put an end to it; move along, nothing to see here. Or, if it is about sexism, still, maybe we might need that other planet after all.

Mark Radcliffe is a senior lecturer and author of Gabriel’s Angel


Readers' comments (4)

  • michael stone

    Hi Mark - you were having 'a bad day' when you decided to write that one, perchance ?

    This is horribly complicated, because healthcare systems do seem to be hierarchical, whatever nurses on NT write on the subject. And doctors do seem to sit at the top of that hierarchy (at least in their opinion, and in the opinion of politicians) - so, to prevent disorder and chaos, isn't there an attempt to impose single decision-makers, and to have doctors as that decision makers ?

    I'm currently discussing a few issues with a consultant, one being my dislike of his writing about 'shared decision making' - it is almost invariably discussion, followed by a decision being made inside the mind of a single individual.

    But within the NHS, multiple equally valid decisions, all existing simultaneously, would surely lead to chaos ?

    That said, and as an outsider, it seems to me that doctors are far more vocal and assertive than nurses - doctors are now about 50/50 female/male, but nursing is much more female dominated. So perhaps there is sexism in play, but there might also be something (whether or not inculcated by wider society) about women, that results in women 'not fighting their corner' as strenuously as men do.

    If so, that isn't 'simple' sexism, in my opinion: it is more complicated.

    But I do think it would help the NHS and patients, if nurses were more forceful in ressitign things such as staffing cuts, and what I can only describe as 'general cost-determined management idiocy that damages both patients and the NHS'.

    I also think, that nurses should try and get patients to understand the problems, and to join with nurses in resisting 'unhelpful pressures'.

    Usually, I get told that I'm way off target, next.

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  • Hmm one way to fight your corner is to provide exceptional care- as a prescribing nurse practitioner I get paid half of the GP salary but proabaly do twice as much and often do it better -or certainly more holistically. When patients realise that I am a nurse (practitioner) and what I can offer they will help fight my corner when it is needed-I hope.

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  • Interesting. I agree DH its horribly complicated and yet there are a lot of examples of that simple sexism on all sides. Confounded with age old hierarchies and power games. A blog written by a very articulate and I would say right thinking GP cited examples of nusing relevance to his economic arguments as simple washers and feeders of patients.
    However it is interesting that so many nursesfeel the need to fight their corner for a voice or funding or safe care. It always seems to be a battleground on the shopfloor but articulated in upper echelon meetings as shared decision making. How does that translate? Are we in the realms again of doubleplus speak? How can we dedicate time energy and focus to care if we are constantly having to meet and hold boundaries with such force?

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  • michael stone

    Anonymous | 3-Dec-2012 11:34 am

    'Shared decision making' - a phrase often used, and also normally untrue !

    Almost no decisions are 'shared' - either you have a vote, or a specific person in the end makes the decision, or else everyone is allowed to walk off with their own individual decision to hand: what the heck is 'shared decision making' !!!

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