A study by the Royal College of Nursing has concluded that nurses are systematically undervalued because the sector is predominantly staffed by women, and that female nurses are paid significantly less than their male counterparts. Samantha Spence, 33, who has worked as a children’s nurse and health visitor in London, tells The Independent this comes as no surprise.
Before I entered nursing I worked in recruitment where there was significant pressure on women's appearance in the workplace. We had to look good but the same standards did not apply to men who could look how they wanted. Although this isn’t the case in nursing, men and women still face different expectations while doing the same job.
I have worked as a community health visitor for three years now. Prior to that I was a children’s nurse on a ward at a local hospital. Now, I spend my days visiting families with young children, advising them on early childhood health and how they should be developing. The role seeks to reduce health inequalities and support parents to do the best for them and their family.
Health visiting is undoubtedly female dominated - men in paediatric nursing and health visiting are few and far between - but when the men are there everyone is aware of them and they are automatically given a higher profile than women in the same positions.
I regularly see interactions in which patients automatically assume their male nurse is their doctor and where female doctors are taken to be nurses. Or situations where a female member of staff will say something and then the same is repeated by a male member of staff, but he is treated with more authority than she is. For example, I will have made a joint decision with a male nurse about a patient but they listen to his advice not mine. I have definitely been in situations where I have felt my opinion is taken less seriously than that of the male nurse next to me.
I hesitate to speak up about my concerns incase I get labelled as “opinionated”. Sometimes I worry that female nurses make that worse for ourselves by apologising for speaking out or using language that undermines our authority. But it’s hard when you’re conditioned to see yourself that way.
When it comes to our salaries, the NHS operates a banded pay structure, so men and women in the same roles don’t face unequal pay. But I have been in situations where male nurses with less experience than me or my female colleagues appear to have been promoted more quickly than us, pushing their salary up. In some of my workplaces there have definitely been a disproportionate number of senior male nurses compared to the nursing population as a whole.
But why does this happen? Well, I believe the main reason for this is that nursing is still only spoken about in terms of care and compassion - things that are seen to be women’s work. Although these skills are crucial, they are not the only skills female nurses have. We are highly-skilled professionals leading the way for our patients. But when you describe things in terms like “care and compassion” they can be written off as of lesser value and therefore lower wages.
Of course we see this all over society: caring is perceived as a natural role for women and it is expected that women will take on this role when it is required. This can be seen when they become a mother and have children, women are largely primary caregivers, or as a caregiver to elderly relatives who need assistance. It is always women who are expected to step in. And because this care is given free of charge, it is not valued by other family members, or society at large.
But as a female nurse I have a full set of skills that are valuable: a strong knowledge base which means I can identify health needs for a family, enable families to open up and trust me with things they’ve never spoken about before such as domestic violence.
Nursing interventions literally save lives, this is seen as something that means nurses should feel good and privileged about the work that they do, rather than receive proper remuneration for their work.
To encourage more men to join the profession, nursing is often sold on the basis of its “manly” attributes or elements of the job that make it worthy of men’s attention. But as we face a future with increasing shortages of registered nurses and support workers [one in four NHS wards routinely operates at staffing levels so low that patient safety is threatened], it is critical this changes.
Nursing is facing a shortage of 40,000 jobs. It is a vital and irreplaceable role and we don’t have time to wait any longer for the necessary pay increases and acknowledgement of our importance that might attract enough people into the profession. It’s not good enough to simply acknowledge that female nurses are “systematically undervalued”, we urgently need change.
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