The College of Nursing has recently approved our strategic plan for the next three years, and I’m very proud of our work. Identifying our priorities is essential to achieving our goals, and we have committed ourselves to a Healthy Environment for students, faculty and staff; Innovation in Education and Practice, particularly in interprofessional education; Engagement with our Communities; and becoming a national leader in the innovative Science of Health.
I want to focus on the first goal – Healthy Environment – today. One of the strategies we identified to achieve that goal is to foster a civil work and learning environment based on mutual regard, teamwork and collegiality, respectful communication, and observance of the norms of decorum. It’s important that we think deeply and talk openly about what it means to have a truly inclusive environment where we all feel respected and valued.
I’ll start the conversation by voicing my deep concern about the growing number of sexual harassment accusations against media and political figures. What’s missing from the current conversation, though, is the less obvious harassment women in the workplace encounter every day, which takes the form of being ignored, having one’s voice considered less important or even irrelevant, or being left out of discussions in the powerful “old boys club.”
Nursing as a discipline has struggled for decades (should I say centuries?) to achieve equality with other professionals, and the fact that we have a traditionally female membership plays a larger part than we have cared to recognize. Often, nurses are complicit in this lesser status by assuming a subservient role, allowing patients and other professionals to call them by their first name without being invited to do so, being reticent to speak up in rounds when the nurse has the most information about the patient, or cleaning up after a messy resident who leaves debris in a patient’s bed. While nurses may say it is for the benefit of the patient – of course, our ultimate goal – other professionals don’t allow themselves to be treated so poorly.
Some of this disrespect takes the form of lateral violence, where nurses gossip about or bully other nurses, or treat a student or new graduate with scorn. In 2017, the American Nurses Association’s Year of the Healthy Nurse, isn’t it inconsistent with our professional ethics to stand by silently and witness this behavior? How is standing by silently any different from witnessing someone being sexually harassed and saying nothing?
Here at the College of Nursing, I’ve heard stories that some students dislike it when faculty indicate they want to be addressed by their professional titles. “Who do you think you are?” was one statement repeated to me. Who they are is a professional who has earned the right to be called Doctor or Professor through years of education and practice, and to question that title is an attempt to drag a person down in status. Is this related to gender discrimination? Yes, as the majority of our faculty are women. Similar behavior has been demonstrated by physician groups, who have taken stances, and even proposed legislation, against doctorally prepared nurses calling themselves Doctor. Read more about this ridiculous issue here, here, and here (registration required).
So what should we do as women, enlightened men, and nurses? We need to speak out, even though we run the risk of being seen as unpleasant, aggressive, or worse, even though we know similar candor is often rewarded in men. “Be nicer” we’re told; “she is difficult,” they might say behind our backs; or more likely, we’re ignored. Just like women who’ve been sexually harassed, we need to confront these behaviors each and every time. While these conversations may be unpleasant, they must occur if we’re ever to conquer discriminatory actions and attitudes against women in the workplace. And if the thought of speaking up makes us fear for our jobs, we must follow official channels to obtain the support we need. Count on the senior women you know for support; trust me when I say we have all been there and can offer you sage advice.
As we think about the upcoming holidays and the New Year, I hope we all make a resolution to make 2018 the Year of the Healthy Environment. As we operationalize our strategic plan, we will have forums and activities throughout the year to advance equality and respect for all persons in the College and University. I hope you will join me.