I have written on these pages and elsewhere about the public understanding of Nursing and the issues that this may lead to for the profession and for those who need access to it. Some of that has been polemic in the general media (here), editorial aimed at the profession (here), and research into contemporary perceptions of nursing (here) in order to try to find out if views are changing. The research revealed that there are indications that the perception and image of nurses and nursing in the USA is a positive one, whilst in the UK there is still a struggle to move beyond traditional and often denigratory images. Although there is some evidence of strong public trust, this does not generally appear to be born out of an understanding of nursing work and impact; rather it appears to stem from the respect held for the traditional, more sentimental stereotypes of selfless young women, cheerful, hardworking and overworked. Nursing in the UK knows that it has an image issue and recently the Chief Nurse for England announced work on addressing this.
It is one thing when the popular media portray Nurses in an unhelpful way, but in the last few months there have been at least 2 inappropriate portrayals of Nurses by employers, which is both disappointing and troubling. The first, an advert recruiting Nurses that showed a group of young women in uniform, presumably Nurses, grinning at the camera, whilst another lay across a trolley, kicking her legs in the air. It was, I think, meant to show ‘the fun side’ of Nursing. It resulted in a Twitter surge of anger and, to the Trust in question’s credit, was quickly taken down and an apology made by the Chief Executive for any disrespect shown to the profession. The second incident was more worrying. This was an advertisement produced by a professional marketing company, that portrayed Nurses in arguably both sexist and disrespectful terms – again, under the excuse of being ‘a bit of fun’. You can judge how amusing they are here .
There was disapproval voiced on social media, with many Nurses (and others) expressing their distaste for an advert that was seen, variously, as ‘crass’, ‘ill-judged’, ‘sexist’ and ‘disrespectful’. The Trust in question had little to say, other than an approximation of the ends justified the means (yes, really, see below) and the Trust’s Head of Education and Training was quoted as saying: ‘This is without doubt is (sic) the most intelligent, inventive and creative campaign I have seen anywhere within the NHS and it has worked a treat’.
I looked up the Trust Board because I was interested in the gender split. It’s here, if you’re interested too. It seems that no-one recognised that the adverts could be seen as sexist and demeaning to a highly educated and knowledge-based profession. The entertainment value of demeaning Nursing is clearly identifiable from the research literature mentioned above, and hostile or sexist interpretations of Nursing are frequently seen and used as amusing entertainment. ‘Just a bit of fun’ and ‘it’s a bit of banter’ are worn-out and discredited excuses for what has become known as everyday sexism, and these adverts, for me, fall well into that category. It is all too easy (and lazy) to use images and references to Nurses and Nursing that demonstrate a clear lack of respect, often arising from denigratory stereotyping.
Gender prejudices are alive and well in public images of Nursing, and these prejudices are evidenced in portrayals of Nurses characterised as sexual playthings, beautiful young and sexy, defying danger to find romance – all resonant in these adverts. The statement that ‘it has worked’ and that the end justifies the means serves only to demonstrate how deeply seated these damaging stereotypes are, how normalised in some thinking, how unrecognised as offensive, even when tongue-in-cheek. It’s one of Nursing’s biggest issues professionally and it is deeply troubling that employers should exploit this as a recruitment tactic.
Post script – 24 hours after the offending ads hit Twitter and three hours after I posted this blog the Trust put out this statement on Twitter.