Comment

Time to drop gendered job titles and leave ‘sister’ in the past

Nursing must follow other emergency services and go genderless – or be forever undervalued

Nursing must follow other emergency services and go genderless – or be forever undervalued

Nursing is a passionate, progressive and dynamic profession, so why in much of the UK are we still using gender-centric job titles, such as ‘matron’ and ‘sister’?

This is a historical hangover. The profession has moved on and yet we are holding on to echoes of the past.

Stereotypes around gender in nursing

I’ve been in nursing for 30 years and over that time have been referred to as a ‘male’ nurse.

Sometimes that term has revealed a bias. As a newly qualified nurse I

Nursing must follow other emergency services and go genderless – or be forever undervalued

Although things have moved on since the 1960s, around 90% of nurses are still female. Picture: Alamy

Nursing is a passionate, progressive and dynamic profession, so why in much of the UK are we still using gender-centric job titles, such as ‘matron’ and ‘sister’?

This is a historical hangover. The profession has moved on and yet we are holding on to echoes of the past.

Stereotypes around gender in nursing

I’ve been in nursing for 30 years and over that time have been referred to as a ‘male’ nurse.

Sometimes that term has revealed a bias. As a newly qualified nurse I was employed on a cardiology ward for women. One day I overheard a senior colleague express how wrong she thought it was to employ a male nurse on a female ward.

As my career progressed to the role of matron, I received many comments in jest relating to the classic Carry On films, which I always greeted with good humour.

These gendered descriptions have receded somewhat over time, but they still exist.

More recently, the young child of a patient I was treating asked me if I was a doctor. ‘No, a nurse’, I replied. ‘But I thought only girls were nurses,’ he said.

The comment stumped me for a moment: how far have we moved forward as a profession in our public image and professional stature if this is still an impression held by our youngest generation?

How gendered language is stopping us from solving staffing issues

This gender-centric terminology remains embedded in our professional stature and career structures, and may even have a negative effect on recruitment.

In a profession with an estimated 50,000 vacancies and in which only 10% of the workforce is male, one answer is to recruit more men.

But calling nurses ‘sister’ or ‘matron’ may be deterring men from joining the profession, former RCN general secretary Janet Davies warned in 2018.

‘In the fire and rescue service, gender neutrality has been achieved by adopting the term ‘fire fighter’ and, similarly, ‘paramedic’ is used for both males and female staff’

She pointed out that in Scotland, the term ‘sister’ had already been done away with and replaced by ‘charge nurse’.

Admirable, but arguably a drop in the ocean.

Perception of a ‘feminine’ profession means we are undervalued

The old-fashioned view of nursing as ‘feminine’ is one that undervalues the profession, concluded an RCN-commissioned study published last year.

Researchers from the RCN and Oxford Brookes University found nurses are undervalued in status and pay because the profession is predominantly made up of women.

Even during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, pop culture reflected nursing’s stereotypes. The artist Banksy gave a painting to a hospital of a superhero nurse, wearing a dress, cardboard hat and a cape. While the imagery was topical, it re-emphasised a bygone reality of nursing as a female-only profession.

Other emergency services are now genderless

These perceptions are standing in the way of progress.

Being a ‘male’ or ‘female’ nurse is immaterial: the salient point is that nursing needs to futureproof its public image, recruit to the profession and ensure nurses are recognised as skilled professionals.

In 2020 England’s chief nursing officer Ruth May promoted the use of gender-neutral ‘mini uniforms’ – nursing attire for children – to help dispel the idea that nursing is only for women.

More needs to be done.

Other professions have managed to bring in gender-neutral job titles.

The term ‘police officer’ represents male and female officers, whereas in the past ‘woman police constable’ was the designation for female officers.

In the fire and rescue service, gender neutrality has been achieved by adopting the term ‘fire fighter’ and, similarly, ‘paramedic’ is used for both male and female staff.

Despite endless examples, the nursing profession still does not reboot itself.

Our profession must follow the leads of the other emergency services and also adopt gender-neutral job titles.



Further information

Sign up to continue reading for FREE

OR

Unlock full access to RCNi Plus today

Save over 50% on your first three months:

  • Customisable clinical dashboard featuring 200+ topics
  • Unlimited online access to all 10 RCNi Journals including Nursing Standard
  • RCNi Learning featuring 180+ RCN accredited learning modules
  • NMC-compliant RCNi Portfolio to build evidence for revalidation
  • Personalised newsletters tailored to your interests

This article is not available as part of an institutional subscription. Why is this?

Jobs