In celebration of nurses and smashing sexist stereotypes

This month we observed National Nurses Day – set on 12th May – the birthday of the original and pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale who was a huge social reformer and widely regarded as the founder of modern nursing. 

Nurses are often the ‘unsung’ everyday heroes we take for granted. They care for the young and old around the clock and undertake vital and often emotionally, mentally and physically gruelling work. Those who work in the profession are passionate about healing, helping people, and giving support and dignity to the very sick.

But when you think of nurses or mentally picture a nurse, what gender do you immediately think of? What does a nurse typically ‘look’ like? That might seem like a silly question but, the truth is, professions – like nursing – still come with set ideas: that it’s a woman’s job; that nurses perhaps aren’t as smart as doctors; that if a man is a nurse he is likely to be gay.

These stereotypes about gender and careers are deeply ingrained in our society, with many children growing up with narrow ideas about what jobs are suitable for men and women. These ideas are harmful because they can limit children’s understanding of the diverse range of careers available to them and prevent them from pursuing their interests and passions.

It was for this reason that we worked closely with the NHS to produce My Daddy Is A Nurse to reset a new narrative and inspiring role model for children that shows how nursing as a profession is becoming more diverse. People of all genders, social backgrounds and ethnic profiles now make up the workforce of modern nursing.

Peter Towns, an associate director of nursing at the Newcastle Upon Tyne NHS Foundation Trust told his own story of how he came to be a nurse in The Metro. His first job in healthcare was working in a local nursing home where one of his many duties was to help a lady who had suffered from a stroke and had lost the use of one side of her body apply her make-up. This act was something hugely important to her and her self-image. Despite the devastating life changes this lady had faced, Peter had helped her to become more like her old self; someone who took pride in her appearance. It was here that he realised the greater purpose of his job. He loved working with the residents of the nursing home and made meaningful bonds with them. That was what inspired him to go into nursing.

But throughout most of his earlier career, Peter talked of the prejudices he faced. “Are you gay?”, “were you not clever enough to be a doctor?” and “couldn’t you get a proper job?” were some of the comments he received from patients. Even his children started masking the fact that he was a nurse. To give an example of how children can have very set ideas on what is an appropriate job for a man or woman, his young daughter’s school friend once tried to correct his daughter when she explained that her dad was a nurse. “No, he’s a doctor, men can’t be nurses”. 

One way to break down these stereotypes is through children’s books and popular culture showcasing men in nursing and care work. Some popular titles include A Nurse for Bear by Mem Fox, A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead, and Maurice the Unbeastly by Amy Dixon. Normalising the presence of men in these professions will start to challenge misconceptions about gender and careers. School visits, community events and mentorship programmes can help to dissolve these barriers.

Involving children in discussions about gender and careers has never been more important. Children should be encouraged to think about the reasons why certain jobs are seen as being more suitable for men or women and to challenge these ideas. What careers are they interested in? Would they be put off from doing a particular job, even if they knew they would love it because they cannot see people like them represented in the workforce or team? To be in the minority can be a very intimidating thing. I know first-hand how off-putting it can be, as a young Black woman entering the male-dominated profession of engineering. Helping children to see careers and gender differently and become aware of how set beliefs can influence and restrict their dreams is the first and most important step in tackling discrimination right from the grassroots.