The refusal of an NHS trust to accept charity money because it was raised by men dressed as nurses has highlighted the sexual stereotyping of the profession. How serious a problem is it – and does it encourage harassment in the workplace?
The lipstick is a bit smudged and one or two of the breasts have slipped, but the guys who dressed up as female nurses to raise money for Shropshire community health NHS trust look pretty happy. Presumably because the photograph was taken before the trust rejected their £2,500 on the grounds that “the presentation of men dressed as female nurses in a highly sexualised and demeaning way is wrong, outdated and insulting to the profession”. One of the men has a lacy bra showing. Another a suspender belt. The NHS is not exactly awash with money, yet the Shropshire trust felt strongly enough to reject the donation. So how serious a problem is the sexual stereotyping of nurses? And is it feeding sexual harassment in the workplace?
“People see us as these lovely little handmaidens. They see us as objects. We’re a profession. Society needs to respect us as a profession,” says Danielle Tiplady, 30, who works as a nurse in London and is the only one I speak to who objects to the photograph of the fundraisers. “I find it bamboozling that people can’t see there’s a problem with it. Even now people dress up as sexy nurses on a night out. But (a) we’re not all female and (b) I don’t go to work with my bra hanging out and suspenders on. I find it demeaning. They are sexualising what we do. How are we expecting people to take us seriously?”
The Royal College of Nursing has decided not to comment on the Shropshire health trust’s decision, even though yesterday the West Midlands regional office prepared a statement of support for the trust. The statement never made it to publication, and most of the nurses I speak to prefer to remain anonymous. Why are they so worried?
The men from Ludlow Brewing Company who dressed as nurses and raised £2,500 for the Hospital League of Friends. Photograph: Ludlow Advertiser / SWNS.com
It is 50 years since Barbara Windsor wore a pink mini dress with a starched apron pinned to her breasts in Carry On Doctor, yet medical-themed titillation lives on. Ann Summers has a choice of four nurses’ outfits, including “Knockout Nurse” and “Nurse Heartstopper”. There are doctors and nurses nights at clubs and student unions. In May this year, a recruitment campaign by Hull and East Yorkshire hospitals NHS trust included posters that showed a female nurse beside the slogans “Before lunch Izzy made Roy’s heart flutter. It’d stopped for ten minutes” and “As soon as Emma looked at John she knew it was serious. A full fracture of the tibia.” (The trust later apologised and said an error by its advertising agency had led to the advertisements’ publication.)
Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, says the project receives “a steady flow” of reports from nurses of harassment in the workplace. “We do definitely still hear from female nurses who are experiencing sexual harassment, in part due to this stereotype that reduces them to sex objects. They’re in a difficult position in terms of caring for patients which makes it very challenging for them if that sexual harassment is coming from patients.”
And patients, rather than colleagues, seem to be the source of most harassment. Almost everyone I speak to has an example. “When I was in my training, in 1989, I got my bum pinched as I walked past by male patients,” says a nurse who works in Harrogate. Another, now 54, found that when she worked as an occupational nurse, she removed a splinter from a man’s hand, resting his hand on her leg in order to do so. “The next thing, I had a whole line of them”; men queueing up to have their phantom splinters removed. Another nurse, based in London, stopped wearing dresses during her training a couple of years ago and switched to trousers “because a patient put their hand up my dress”. She discussed the incident with a fellow student. “We were saying we should be spoken to about sexual harassment and the things that happen.” Because as a new entrant to the profession, “you just don’t expect to get it”.
People dress up as nurses on a night out, sexualising what we do. How are we expected to be taken seriously?
This nurse says that she experiences less harassment since she became fully qualified, but that it is not necessarily a sign of progress. “I don’t think that’s because it’s got better. It’s because I stand up for myself more.” At the time of the incident, she told the male patient to stop, and ran. She didn’t report him, either to the hospital or the police, “because sometimes you feel like reporting may be a burden when you are surrounded by people who encourage you to put up and shut up”.
Dealing with harassment when your professional designation is to care is itself complicated. The Harrogate nurse says she finds herself extending greater understanding to older patients. “You are caring for them. They might have dementia. They might have issues you don’t know about.”
In addition, there is a culture of non-acknowledgment of harassment. As an A&E nurse, she got used to male patients saying things such as: “‘Oi sexy nurse, get your arse over here!’ It would always come from men. You just let that go over your head.” Outside work, when people make comments – “You’re a nurse, do you wear a sexy uniform?’ – she has “shot them down”.
But harassment seems harder to deal with in the workplace.
“Sometimes the culture is like, you just have to put up with it,” says the London nurse. “It makes you stronger if you put up with it. Another part of the problem is that you get used to it. And maybe that’s why you don’t notice it as much. We’re battling a lot of things at the moment – pay, staffing. Some things you just forget about.”
“My only experience was not from a member of the public, it was from a colleague,” says Jenny Harper, 56, from Queen’s hospital in Romford, Essex. “‘I’m a doctor and you’re a nurse, and I’m not getting any, so how about it?’ But that was years ago.”
“I’ll tell you one thing that happened recently,” says the Harrogate nurse, who has several decades’ experience. “A male doctor, a guy in his 40s, called me ‘nursie’ – ‘Oh, nursie, can you do that?’ I said: ‘Excuse me! What have you just called me?’ He looked horrified. He didn’t know what to say. I said: ‘Don’t ever do that again. Not even in jest.’”
“Historically, this image of sexy nurses – and it is like that – has come from hundreds of years ago where we were seen as sex workers,” says Tiplady. Before Florence Nightingale’s reforms in professionalising nursing in the mid-19th century, nurses were working-class women considered to be on a social level with sex workers. Or, like Mrs Gamp, in Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, illiterate and drunk on gin.
“The other thing is the notion of nursing as caring, as being subservient,” says a nurse based in Cheshire. Nurses’ uniforms have come a long way from the perky hat and the cinched-in belt – parents traditionally bought their daughters a silver buckle when they qualified – and aprons, all of which recall the attire of 19th-century servants, and are echoed in the costumes of The Handmaid’s Tale. Most nurses now choose to wear scrubs. But the androgynising of workwear has not necessarily helped men, who account for 11.4% of all nurses.
The Ludlow fundraisers were not trying to hide their masculinity. They were keen to display it, even as they alluded to the stereotype of the saucy nurse. Bates finds this “very clearly being done to mock, to create humour by mocking” trans people. She also worries about the impact on nurses who are men, many of whom “experience a huge amount of comment, belittling comment, because of the outdated but still pervasive notion that this is a sexualised profession”.
“It is assumed that because you’re a nurse and you’re a man, you’re gay,” says Martin Jackson, a 52-year-old critical care nurse at Barnsley hospital. “People assume that male nurses must be effeminate. It’s because I’m in a minority. People seem more happy to voice that assumption when I’m out and about. At work, people tend to think it but not say it.” From time to time, he says, he swaps with his female colleagues if a male patient is being “particularly inappropriate ... verbal stuff still goes on quite regularly. It tends to be with the younger female nurses. Patients think that they’ll not react. They’ll stand for it.”
The sexual stereotyping of nurses seems uniformly pernicious – and overdue a healthcheck.
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