Picture a ward sister at the height of her powers. She is organising care for frail, acutely ill patients while reassuring worried relatives and involving them in decision making.
Picture a primary school teacher at the top of her game. She has 25 children of varying abilities, some with special needs. She has adult teaching assistants to deploy and manage and parents waiting to see her.
What do they have in common? They are highly creative and competent professionals taking complex decisions that matter and making it look seamless and straightforward. Their skills are taken for granted and massively underrated. They are women.
Over the course of my comms career, I have worked to promote the valuable contribution of these professions, and the women who are working in them. It has not always been an easy task.
When I started my career, the majority of head teachers were men and the media gravitated towards them for interview. That was still a problem when I returned to the education scene in 2003. There was plenty of media comment about the almost total absence of men in primary teaching, but very little about the work of women teachers and a belief that teachers are born, not made.
Similarly, when I first worked for the Royal College of Nursing, there was a tendency in the media to portray nurses as victims – poorly paid, downtrodden and exploited, angels but not experts. The media found it difficult to recognise nurses as specialists, experts and public health advocates and rarely commissioned them to contribute to serious news programmes or interviews. With women doctors it was different – their skills were acknowledged – but there were many fewer of them in leading positions and the male medical voice dominated.
Bizarrely, although doctors are expected to be both clever and compassionate, there is still a school of thought that believes nurses can’t be both. It is sexism, pure and simple, and would be laughable if it were not so pernicious in its effect.
However, much has changed for the better. Women now form the majority of medical students and there are many distinguished women doctors leading the medical royal colleges. Female nurses and teachers are now being interviewed as experts in their field. Some of that is due to the efforts of comms professionals – also mostly women – marshalling the evidence, sourcing compelling case studies and simply persevering with the attempt to portray a balanced picture of the professions for which they work. Our profession has greater rigour and that helps too.
The drive for greater public understanding of science may also have had a positive impact. It requires higher order comms skills at which women excel, but which in the past almost worked against them. By making things seem simple, the teacher and the nurse lost out on perceived authority and gravitas.
Much remains to be done. Women are generally more modest about their own achievements; they are great team players and prefer to show rather than assert their competence.
All laudable qualities, but it can make them reluctant interviewees. Most nurses are not in positions of power and can be deterred from speaking publicly. Yet when they do, they are credible and compelling. Whether it is the emergency nurse expressing frustration at long waits for patients, the hospice nurse describing the privilege of caring for people at the end of their lives, or the mental health nurse campaigning against the stigma of mental illness, their voices are important.
Having returned to the RCN, it is my passionate desire and determination to get more of their voices heard.
Fiona Johnson is director of comms at the Royal College of Nursing