This "sexist" campaign to recruit nurses is undermining a fragile NHS

The leaked campaign has been likened to something out of the 1970s

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By Zoë Beaty on

Barely a day goes by without a depressing headline about the NHS making an appearance in the news – and unsurprisingly, today is no different. An unpublished poster campaign to recuit nurses has caused a Twitter storm after being labelled "sexist" and "crass" – and it's difficult to disagree.

The images show two young, blonde-haired women, stood by posters in nursing uniforms. "As soon as Emma looked at John, she knew it was serious," the first poster begins. "A full fracture of the tibia." 

The second, bizarrely using romance to sell the job in the same fashion, says that "Before lunch, Izzy made Roy's heart flutter. It'd stopped for ten minutes."

You can almost hear the calls of “ooooh matron!” bouncing off the page. Unsurprisingly, the posters have elicited quite a response, with nurses all over the country voicing their anger that their integral role has been reduced to nothing more than a “crass” ad. 

“Seriously? Where are they hoping they’ll work? The 1970s?” one user tweeted. adding, “Are we not in more enlightened times?”

More said that they were “disappointed”, while one went as far as altering the captions on the posters to say, “Emma trained for years so she could recognise and take action to save your life when you are seriously ill,” and “Izzy’s knowledge and skills means she can operate the machines keeping you alive.”

The trust concerned with the posters, Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals, who were working with Strawberry Design Agency to create the campaign, issued a statement after the posters came to light, saying that “the staff featured in this campaign have been involved in the design and creative process and have acted as ambassadors” for their organisation. 

The fact that the posters were even a consideration at some level shows, sadly, that the tired stereotypes which have long belittled the highly-skilled, gruelling, often thankless, work nurses do still exist

They added that the posters came into the public sphere by accident and had been rejected as the visuals for the campaign. “The visual printed in the HSJ had been presented to our trust as one format amongst a number of campaign options. We rejected it immediately and it has never been used as part of the campaign. Unfortunately it was issued to the HSJ in error when the agency submitted a range of campaign material to the publication. We are aware that the unauthorised image has caused some concerns and we would like to reassure people that we remain committed to the principles of equality and diversity.”

That the trust claim they were not planning on using the posters is the saving grace out of this most recent furore, but sadly it is indicative of a larger issue at play. While nurses are still seen through a prism of femininity – degraded not only as young, highly sexualised women, but of being more valued by society for their empathy than their intelligence and skill – we risk undermining the people who are keeping alive the greatest thing we have in Britain. 

And, as Professor June Girvin, the former Executive Director of Nursing, points out, it’s not the first instance of inappropriate portrayals of nurses in recent months. She wrote on her blog about another advert used to recruit nurses, which showed a “group of young women in uniform, presumably nurses, grinning at the camera, whilst another lay across a trolley, kicking her legs in the air. “It was, I think, meant to show the ‘fun side’ of nursing. It resulted in a Twitter surge of anger and, to the Trust in question’s credit, was quickly taken down and an apology made by the Chief Executive for any disrespect shown to the profession.”

“Nursing has a long history of denigration… and it is so ingrained culturally,” Prof Girvin added this morning when I spoke to her briefly. “This kind of incident just shows how difficult it is to get it taken seriously.”

The fact that the posters were even a consideration at some level shows, sadly, that the tired stereotypes which have long belittled the highly-skilled, gruelling, often thankless, work nurses do still exist. There’s a reason nurses have been systematically underpaid – and why they have been reported to be gearing up for their first strike in decades over pay, and why the job is still overwhelmingly associated with women – and that won’t end until these stereotypes are quashed. 


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