In its early days, the NHS was an institution that valued and worked in accordance with a strict hierarchy. Consultants and other doctors occupied the top positions, with nurses taking their much lowlier place close to the bottom of the pile. The gender of those who staffed our hospitals and surgeries also reflected a wider societal gender divide, with almost exclusively female nurses existing primarily to enact the wishes of almost exclusively male doctors. Decision-making rights were concentrated amongst the males, at the top of the NHS power structure.

Nursing today is a very different proposition and, rather than being ‘trained on the job’ in a piecemeal way, the vast majority of nurses today either hold a degree or are studying towards one. Additionally, many of the qualifications nurses are achieving are in specialist medical areas. Nurses are no longer auxiliaries to the main medical prowess of doctors- they are experts in their own right, holding valuable knowledge and insight in areas like diabetes, obesity, obstetrics, pharmacology, pain control… the list is endless. With their new expertise, these nurses have achieved higher pay scales, with many reaching the earning power of their doctor colleagues.

So, why are these changes taking place?

There are a number of reasons, both societal and scientific. In society more broadly the lines between traditionally ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles have become very blurred. Although nursing as a profession remains dominated by women, that too is gradually changing. There are far more male nurses today than there were even a few decades ago, and there are also a much greater number of female doctors. In fact, today more women go to medical school than men. In the UK, in 2013, some 55% of first year medical students were female. As the old-fashioned division between male / female, doctor /nurse breaks down, so to does the way we, as patients and colleagues, perceive the roles. However, changes to the nursing profession don’t only reflect a shift in gender roles; the way the role is changing is also down to major technological and scientific advances.

New nursing methods, innovative machines and better research have freed nurses from many of the labour-intensive chores that once defined their working lives. Like housewives of old, a nurse’s daily life was once full of cleaning; a constant fight against infection and filth. Today, with machinery bearing the brunt of this work, nurses are more likely to be found processing illuminating data or contributing to important research than they are scrubbing floors.

A hierarchy of nursing still exists, as anyone observing a nursing teams’ colour-coded uniforms (which correspond to different band roles) will attest. However, nurses today have opportunities to climb a pay scale ladder and / or to branch off into interesting and rewarding specialisms; something simply not possible 100 or even 50 years ago. Inarguably, these are positive developments, for nurses of either gender, but also for the patients who rely on them.

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