PC versus PR - when to make that call

15 Dec


NursesEarlier this year Shropshire Community Health NHS Trust turned down a proposed donation of £2,500 raised to help fund new ECG equipment at Ludlow Hospital and caused a bit of a PR furore in the process.

The money was to be donated by a group of men who had taken part in a charity run around Ludlow, a run that had taken place for 20 years and was formerly a bed push. The event is well received by the local community and has raised substantial amounts of money for good causes in the past and had strong links to the hospital.

However, the Trust's Chief Executive, Jan Ditheridge, declined the donation because the men had donned nurses uniforms and added lacy bras, stockings and suspenders, leading her to state that “The presentation of men dressed as female nurses in a highly sexualised and demeaning way is wrong, very outdated and insulting to the profession.”

The outcry in the tabloids was pretty much as you might expect, with the Sun calling Ditheridge a "kill joy" for example and many of its and the Daily Mirror's on-line commentators seemingly dumbfounded by a cash-strapped NHS CEO turning down what she herself suggested was "well-intentioned" free money.

Ditheridge was labelled part of the PC Brigade and even accused of being a member of the sinister loony left - you have to admire those trolls for not missing an opportunity.

Members of staff at Ludlow hospital were asked for their opinion of this portrayal of themselves. One anonymous nurse suggested that the Trust had lost its sense of humour and that she doubted any nurse would be offended by the men's attire, while Hannah Holt, a nurse originally from Shropshire said: “I love being a nurse and I love people dressing up as nurses; it’s a sign of admiration.”

However, Dr Simon Freeman, Accountable Officer at the Shropshire Clinical Commissioning Group, said the Trust was correct; “The objectification of women is not acceptable,” he said.

Underlying Ditheridge's decision to refuse the much needed cash was the fact that she and the Trust had taken a stand on the presentation of the nursing profession prior to the fun run taking place. She had even written to the organisers asking that such dressing up did not take place as it should not be associated with the Trust and its employees.

"Many people kindly and selflessly raise money for our organisation, and especially for our hospitals. We are eternally grateful for that.

“It isn’t OK to portray healthcare professionals in this way. We have previously asked that this doesn’t happen and therefore don’t think it’s right to accept any money associated with this activity.

“I’m sure the event was organised with the best intentions and we are sorry if it’s made people feel uncomfortable or embarrassed,” said Ditheridge.

Her decision certainly did more than make people uncomfortable. One of the men who took part, Mark Hiles, 45, a telecommunications engineer, said: “We are not trying to discriminate against anybody, it is simply a bit of fun for a really good cause and we’ve raised a lot of money over the years.

“In these times of austerity you’d expect they would want all the help they can get. We are just a group of blokes trying to raise funds for our local community and have a laugh at the same time.”

Another, Simon Morgan, 37, said; “To my knowledge we had no complaints. We were all gutted to find out that our costumes were deemed offensive or sexist. We never intended to offend anybody at all and to be honest, I don’t think we did.”

Ricky Peers, 28, who has been taking part in the bed push since he was 18, said; “What upsets me more is we basically lied to the public. They all donated generously for an ECG machine to help the local hospital and now we are stuck with the money not knowing what to do with it.”

When I first came across this story, slap bang in the middle of the #Metoo debate, I felt quite surprised that dressing up for charity in this way was even an issue. I had never heard anyone comment on the idea of the "sexualised nurse" or even picked up the slightest notion that it has been seen as an issue by the profession. But then, I don't work in those circles or have clients that do, so I'm not likely to come across a specific issue unless it is brought to my attention or I become engaged with it.

Then I got to thinking, from Carry On films to current day porn films, nurses have often been portrayed as sexy (although if you realise where their hands go most days I'm not sure why) and the same can be said of secretaries, teachers and Au pairs. So I asked a few friends who work in the nursing profession what their view of the PR kerfuffle was, and it quite opened my eyes.

Tom, a nurse who works in Nottingham said, "I am undecided (if it is a threat to our image). Whilst our current pay and conditions are the largest of all insults, I don’t think the ‘sexy nurse’ stereotype is helpful at all. Done for comic effect it still sets the bar for public perception. How would we effect real change if people don’t take us seriously? I understand why it’s offensive, it’s more to do with the short dresses and lacy underwear than it being a man in a dress. It’s not helpful to sexualise our profession when some of our procedures are so personal."

Tracey works for the NHS in Sheffield and was quite at ease with the men's choice of clothing because, "I’m pretty comfortable that people know the difference between guys in fancy dress and me in my uniform working as a professional. Our current pay & conditions is what undermines us not folks having fun ... in my opinion anyway," said Tracey.

Another healthcare professional I know said she was far from happy about the idea; " I am a nurse , and I find this portrayal of my profession offensive . I think it was a brave stand to refuse the money . All the time society thinks we are a bunch of bimbos we will never be taken seriously and receive a living wage from this government."

The question that is begged here is, does this represent a parallel argument running alongside the debate about power relationships in the workplace, the sexualistion of women and how they are portrayed? As another friend who joined in the conversation said, "The thing that the nurse, Au-pair and secretary have in common is that they are predominantly and historically roles filled by women that report to men and (such stereotypes) perpetuate the concept that its acceptable for men to objectify women."

The Trust had been very clear about its reasons for wanting to distance itself from the nature of the charity event; it was putting the image, reputation and value of its staff first before much needed extra cash. How could the management of the Trust expect to receive respect from its nurses if it accepted the donation after making it clear that it did not approve of such portrayals? Is it not time that we calmly evaluated what we may have come to accept as "the norm" or "just a bit of fun" if at the end of the day it damages both the self-respect and image of professionals?

So what do you think? Was Ditheridge right to reject the donation? Should she have accepted it and ignored the impact on her members of staff or should she have made a stand for them as respected professionals?

With thanks to The Guardian for some quotes.

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