Sexualisation of nurses gives way to harassment, congress told

Members of the Royal College of Nursing told their annual congress the portrayal of nursing in the mainstream media undermined their professionalism and increased the risk of abuse by the public.

“When I’m wearing my uniform I’m a professional and I’m caring for my patients”

Helen O’Boyle

They said films such as those in the Carry On… series had created a legacy of sexualisation of the nurse uniform.

Stepping up to the podium, RCN members gave harrowing accounts of their own experiences of sexual abuse at work. 

One nurse told the debate on the issue how a patient threatened to wait for her after her shift with his friends and rape her.

Another revealed how she had never worn a dress to work again after being groped by a consultant 15 years ago.

Following the debate, a resolution was passed calling on the RCN’s leadership to lobby employers to put systems in place to protect healthcare staff from sexual harassment by patients and their families and friends.

The conference also heard that current policies were not working and how workplace cultures did not support staff to speak out.

Danielle Tiplady, a member from the RCN Inner North East London branch, told congress: “Nurses are sadly still portrayed in the media in a sexualised manner. 

Danielle Tiplady

Danielle Tiplady

Danielle Tiplady

“This stereotype reduces us to objects and thus increasing the chance of sexual harassment by the public,” she added.

Despite this problem being widespread, nurses were not being provided with adequate support from employers, said Ms Tiplady.

She gave an example of a nurse reporting an incidence of sexual harassment to her manager and, instead of it being taken seriously, the reply she was given was: “maybe he fancied you”.

“We are left completely unsupported, ridiculed, humiliated, ignored, embarrassed, alone,” she told congress.

“All too often harassment by patients is brushed aside as a misunderstanding”

Zeba Arif

Helen O’Boyle, a member from the Inner North Central London branch, said nurses were battling with a “legacy” from the Carry On films in which nurse uniforms were used for titillation.

“I think we are all still seen as objects,” she told congress. “It isn’t just women, it’s all of us.

“We are sometimes not quite taken as seriously as we would want to and so it’s almost expected because of those Carry On films that we should take this – and we shouldn’t,” said Ms O’Boyle.

“My uniform isn’t sexy,” she said. “When I’m wearing my uniform, I’m a professional and I’m caring for my patients.”

Kafeelat Adekunle, an RCN steward from the Inner South East London branch, said she had known of patients and managers who had tried to blackmail nursing staff after they had refused their advances or threatened to report the behaviour.

“We should commit to creating a sustaining culture of trust where employees feel safe, valued and respected,” said Ms Adekunle.

Zeba Arif, who submitted the resolution, said she felt employers often acknowledged their duties to protect staff from harassment by colleagues but not by patients and their families and friends.

“All too often harassment by patients, just as concerning, is brushed aside as a misunderstanding,” said Ms Arif, from the Outer North West London branch.

Ms Arif, who is an RCN steward in a mental health trust, said many organisations viewed sexual harassment by the public as an occupational hazard, like a bad back. “I have heard comments like it comes with the territory,” she added.

“We should commit to creating a sustaining culture of trust”

Kafeelat Adekunle

She said she wanted to see new measures put in place by employers to ensure victims had the confidence to report this behaviour and were able to receive appropriate support.

“I believe there’s potential to bring real lasting change,” Ms Arif said. “Although there has been some improvement, nurses of whatever gender are still sexualised in the mainstream media and on social media thus adding to the risk of being sexually harassed.”