Let's reclaim the image of nursing

 Diana Greenfield and Emma Matthews 7 Mar 2019

male nursing smiling with patient

It’s not immediately obvious how the statement “our future depends on men” aligns with feminism. Yet for nursing, it is true and subscribes to a feminist ideal.

Needless to say, nursing is steeped in stereotype. For the unconvinced, simply indulge any snapshot of pop-culture featuring nurses and you'll see. The extent to which we are defined by cliché undermines our achievements - our life-saving, life-affirming and life-enhancing achievements - and impacts our own self-perceptions, self-portrayal and consequent recruitment. Gender in particular, and various tropes of femininity – sexy, surly, matronly – reinforce the nursing arena as the professional extension of a “woman's place”.

As we recognise the necessity of a more gender-balanced workforce, let’s be active in reclaiming our image and making it appeal to the young boys and bright girls who were advised to aim higher at school. We cannot be what we cannot see, so let’s ask our brilliant nurses to come forth and broaden the language and image that define us. Let’s banish terms such as “sister” and “matron”. And while caring is among our noblest acts, let’s balance it among ideas within science, philosophy, technology - we need the diversity of our work and our workforce to be reflected in the diversity of our words.

To improve the current gender imbalance we see in UK nursing would not only precipitate the unravelling of our hackneyed image, but equally would subvert the toxic masculinity that stifles all genders. The toxic masculinity demanding that a man must be stoic, ruthless and proud, without space for humanity, sensitivity and nuance.

We can celebrate the women who founded nursing, those who uphold and certainly those who advance it, while empowering men to join without stigma or raised brows. Indeed, the inverse has been a successful act of empowerment: medicine was historically a male dominated field until Elizabeth Garrett Anderson came along and paved the way for women. Medicine now enjoys a 50:50 gender split and the presence of women is seen as completely normal. “Doctor” never needs qualifying with a gender. Let’s look forward to the same gender neutrality in nursing.

Diana Greenfield and Emma Matthews

Diana Greenfield and Emma Matthews


Nursing staff

Professor Diana Greenfield is consultant nurse in Specialised Cancer Services at Sheffield Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and also Honorary Professor in the Department of Oncology and Metabolism at the University of Sheffield.

Emma Matthews is a staff nurse working in the Systemic Anti-Cancer Therapy Day Unit at Weston Park Cancer Centre, part of Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. 

Page last updated - 07/03/2019