This International Women’s Day, it is time to dismantle gendered notions of nursing and care and properly value staff
Monday 8 March 2021 is International Women’s Day. As chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), I represent more than 450,000 members from the largest healthcare workforce globally – and a workforce overwhelmingly made up of women.
As a predominantly female profession, nursing has been badly served by its historical construction as a vocation. Nursing staff are not ‘angels’ and ‘heroes’ – we are degree-educated, highly competent, multi-skilled professionals deserving of fair pay.
In the face of serious staffing shortages, the links between fair pay, staffing and patient safety are obvious. Gendered notions of nursing and nurses fail to match the reality of a professional life defined by high-level technical, emotional and cognitive skills, and continue to inhibit efforts to improve the standing and attractiveness of nursing as a career.
And this gendered construction of nursing leaves a legacy which continues to impact nursing staff, through suppressing wages and downgrading working conditions. The pay of registered nurses is 81 per cent of the sector average for healthcare professionals and there is little variation in earnings across the nursing workforce, with low scope for progression and higher earnings across careers. The ingrained devaluation of nursing translates into low pay for everyone in nursing.
Despite the nursing profession being a predominately female workforce, we are poorly represented in nursing leadership positions and on boards. Women make up three-quarters of the NHS workforce, yet we hold less than half of very senior level positions. There is still a need for greater representation from the nursing profession at the highest tables, to bring in the nursing voice, to set strategic direction and to make change happen.
‘Choose to Challenge’ is this year’s International Women’s Day theme and, at the RCN, we are focusing on how we care to challenge and value those who care. We are hosting a panel event on Monday 8 March with Barbara Stilwell, executive director of the Nursing Now global campaign, and I encourage you to join us to explore issues impacting nursing and women globally.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the embedded nature of structural gender inequality and has seen women across the globe shouldering the worst impact of the virus. Tackling gender bias and inequality remains central to the RCN’s mission as a professional trade union. Women hold many different identities and concerns at the same time which need to be properly understood and responded to by policymakers: race, socio-economic circumstances, gender identity, age, disability, pregnancy, religion, faith and beliefs are all powerful influences that shape the life chances of women.
Tackling gender inequality isn’t a domain that solely belongs to women. Just like issues of racism, it requires deep and meaningful collaborations. Achieving gender equity means that we need to engage everybody. Women must lead powerfully wherever we are and call out gender bias and inequality wherever we encounter it – this could be by joining the fight for fair pay for nursing or challenging everyday acts of discrimination.
This year’s International Women’s Day falls during the extended World Health Organization International Year of the Nurse and Midwife. It deserves more than a single day in the annual calendar but, for me, the focus this year is also on celebrating the contribution of nursing staff globally.
Our central role in supporting societies and health systems to rebuild after the pandemic will be key – and I hope we can collectively rebuild a more inclusive world for the women who live and work within it.
Dame Donna Kinnair is chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing