The nurse stereotype that will not go away: yes, nursing is much more than a ‘job for nice women’ – but tell that to the public

If we don’t confront the old idea of nursing as women’s (low-skilled) work once and for all, it will continue to hamper recruitment

Picture: iStock

Is nursing a job ‘nice women’ do?

Even as I type those words, I can feel an avalanche of emails and comments of protest. I hear you.

There are certainly plenty of nice women who are nurses – but this isn’t the point Nursing Now’s Barbara Stilwell is making.

Perception that nursing is not a proper profession, and so is of less interest to men

Dr Stilwell, the global campaign’s executive director, makes a wider observation – in our feature about public perception of nursing and a gendered workforce.

She thinks the lack of men in nursing (just 11% of the nurse workforce) comes from a view that it is a wishy-washy profession – and men won't aspire to that.

Yet nurses know their profession is just that: a profession. Nursing staff make their own often difficult and complex decisions every day, and lead innovation in patient treatment and care. Nurses – no one needs to tell you – are not doctors’ handmaidens.

‘The problem lies with outdated public perceptions, which – along with well-publicised chronic understaffing – does nothing to boost recruitment’

A very unscientific sampling of nurses’ attitudes – thanks to responses to Nursing Standard’s social media posts on the issue – shows unsurprisingly, that many nurses are immensely proud of their highly-skilled job and profession. 

Public attitudes about nursing are outdated

The problem lies with outdated public perceptions, which – along with well-publicised chronic understaffing – does nothing to boost recruitment.

A (more robust) survey commissioned by Anglia Ruskin University found just 32% of the 1,000 people polled associated nursing with leadership skills, worse still: only 23% associated it with innovation.

Held in low esteem: one nurse’s shocking experience

The Nursing Standard readers’ panel was unsurprised and unimpressed by the findings. And one reader's response to the panellists’ views tells a sorry story about public perception.

The nurse recounts meeting an old school friend's ‘horror’ at discovering her profession, asking had she got pregnant too young and didn’t she want to go to university and have a career. You can imagine the response.

So, what should be done? We could cite not one but many public attitude surveys that consistently show nursing is the most trusted profession.

Let’s confront nurse stereotypes with robust evidence – and characteristically good humour – in a way only nurses can.