Gender injustice endemic

The Lancet has set up a commission to examine the poor image of nursing in the UK. A team comprising the great and the good will work on the project for two years.

With breathtaking irony, the very make up of this team flags up one of the root causes of the distorted image of nursing – gender injustice.
general-nursing-thumbMore than 90% of nurses are women. The commission? Nine men and four women! It beggars belief that the body politic of nursing lacks enough female talent in nursing who could do the commissioners’ job, so why so few, and who made the decision?

The elite who run the world have just left Davos after the World Economic Forum. A total of 84% of the 2,500 attendees were men – debating and making decisions on issues that affect every aspect of our lives, including the half of the population that is female.

That dominance of men in positions of power is mirrored at every level in our culture. From our own parliament (just under 23% female) down to The Lancet group, the pattern is the same.

The biggest nursing union in the world and by extension probably the largest women’s organisation, the RCN, has close to half a million members, 90% women, yet it is governed by a council of 19 men and 14 women. I remember being on council 25 years ago and it was much the same then. At the time we wrestled with this imbalance although failed to act on it.

Unison has 240,000 nurses, midwives and health visitors among its members, making it the second biggest UK nursing union. A total of 70% of Unison’s membership are women, and its governing body reflects this, being two thirds women and one third men.

If Unison has got the balance right, why can’t others? One reason could be that this country is in deep denial of gender injustice – equivalent to the ‘institutional racism’ identified in the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

Witness a report in January 2014 concerning the huge variation in the way police forces (mostly men) respond to rape cases in England and Wales. A ‘culture of disbelief’ causes some to write off up to a third of all allegations reported to them. The rate at which forces dismiss allegations initially recorded as a crime because of later details that emerge about the case, varies from only 3% in Cumbria to 33% in Lincolnshire.

Witness also Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News, relentlessly pursuing Nick Clegg, deputy PM and leader of the Liberal Democrats. Mr Clegg refused to be interviewed by her to examine the way he and his party had handled the allegations that Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard had abused some female party activists.

Ms Newman managed to collar him last month, but only by attending a conference launching the government’s new mental health strategy and trying to question him there.

The loudly disapproving reaction of the rest of the audience was telling, voicing their objection to Ms Newman’s ‘effrontery’ in pressing her case at such an event. Misogyny and gender injustice are major factors affecting the mental health of every woman in this country. If these matters cannot be raised in such forums and our leaders challenged, then where can they be raised?

The gender injustice in nursing is only part of a bigger picture. But maybe we can change that bigger picture by getting our own house in order.