How many mothers today – or fathers for that matter – encourage their daughters to go into nursing as a career? How many schools put nursing at the top of their careers advice list for school-leavers? How many bright-eyed and energetic young women do you know who would walk over broken glass to get into nursing?
You know the answers as well as I do. Very few. Don’t put you daughter on a ward, Mrs Worthington.
Of all the mothers who’ve asked my advice about their daughters’ careers over the years, not one has confided to me that she’d like her daughter to be a nurse or that her daughter is interested in nursing. A doctor – yes – but never a nurse. Yet I meet older women who tell me of their pride in and enjoyment of their former career, and indeed how well it fitted with having a family.
But like being a full-time mother, nursing, even with degree status, is no longer respected. Not so long ago, alongside teaching, it used to be a highly regarded career path for girls. Yet today’s modern aspirational middle classes would far rather see their children arrive at the more me-oriented ‘media’, or ‘arts’, career destinations.
The State appears to endorse this prejudice. While trainee nursing places have been viciously axed, university places offering performing arts, media studies and photography degrees continue to proliferate. Yet it is the NHS, not ‘the arts’, that is the country’s main employer.
But if nurses can be recruited so easily from the Philippines, Spain and Portugal – as indeed they are – why bother encouraging British girls (or boys) to train to be nurses? After all it eliminates the risk of schools upsetting feminist sensibilities by encouraging educated girls to aspire to a caring profession, without applying a male quota.
What this means is that we are on course for a further fall in British nurse numbers – by another 5 per cent by 2016 it is estimated. Just last year foreign recruits went up by 50 per cent. The Royal College of Nursing warning that, “the lower rates of newly registered nurses entering the workforce are likely to cause serious issues in undersupply for years to come”, does not appear to be being heeded.
The issue of immigration apart there is something that feels distinctly wrong about this ever greater reliance on foreign recruitment. What does it say about a nation that can’t be bothered to nurse itself, or to train its own young people to nurse? What does it say about a country that views caring as too demeaning to do it itself?
Responsibility for this, for the loss of esteem that nurses were once held in and the crisis in British nursing this has led to, can be laid squarely at the door of feminism.
Feminism has undermined what was an identifiably female ethos of nursing – represented by the white starched dress uniform and cap that, in turn, communicated cleanliness, compassion, care and the maintenance of standards. With the arrival of scruffy unisex uniforms and careless or unkempt hair came the onset of public complaints – about appalling standards of negligence and care that have become the daily diet of newspapers and that won’t go away however many enquiries, commissions and inspections.
For however wonderful Filipino nurses are – and I have no doubt they are and we need to be very grateful to them – they cannot by definition make up for a profession that has not been able to withstand the forces of feminism.
They cannot compensate for the damage done by the killing off of nursing as serious middle class career choice for girls. They cannot counteract our ‘cultural’ endorsement of girls who eschew nursing in favour of the higher status and more lucrative profession of medicine, who then compromise the health service by their short hours, avoidance of more demanding roles to accommodate their family responsibilities, and early retirement.
The arrival of foreign workers does nothing to help nursing leaders left fending off attacks on nursing as lowly “women’s work’. By meeting demands to make nursing a degree entry career to raise its status, these leaders find themselves on the receiving end of complaints about the lack of care shown by these new technocratic nurses. Their role remains a schizophrenic one.
If caring for patients is seen to be demeaning to women, it can no longer be the cardinal principle of nursing, and with other more technical and bureaucratic tasks taking precedence, poor care becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. No wonder if those in nursing feel diminished or that young women are put off from entering this minefield.
Labour peer and eminent doctor Lord Winston has commented on the alarming number of obese nurses in the NHS today. Is this the reason why? Do they reflect the very real crisis that feminism has wrought on their role and their self esteem.
If being a nurse today means, “losing your voice and having to swallow the s..t that management feeds you”, as one nurse described her role on a comment blog, if it means being told to spend less time with your patients, and working on an understaffed ward for low pay, no wonder it is hardly an attractive or a fulfilling proposition.
The sadness is that feminism has turned a once aspirational and respected – albeit feminine – career into a low status and derided profession, which in turn has stoked the crisis of care that is the hallmark of the NHS today.