NurseClickInvisibility of nurses

By Emily Murray 

The invisibility of nurses in management and policy decisions, relative to other health care professions, continues to frustrate and confound us. I argue that sexism, ageism, uniforms and traditional healthcare hierarchies are four ways in which nurses are marginalised and silenced – but when it comes to perpetuating this invisibility, are we more responsible than we might imagine?



Australian nurses are predominantly female, with women comprising 89.3% of the nursing workforce (AIHW 2016). It is widely accepted that women occupy a less privileged position in society relative to cis men (Brown 2009). Women, on average, earn less, are less likely to dedicate themselves to postgraduate study, and are less likely to occupy management positions (Brown 2009). Indeed, the rise of male nurses to management roles is disproportionately fast relative to their qualifications and experience, compared to the ascent of female nurses into management (Brown 2009). Women have largely been socialised into speaking less than men, taking up less space than men, and deferring to the judgement of men. Nursing as a profession is hampered and silenced by society’s gendered preconceptions of the women that make up the large majority of this profession. However, the phenomenon of lateral violence, in which a nurse intimidates or bullies another nurse, demonstrates how female nurses can express their frustration about their limited agency in the patriarchy by exerting negative power over their vulnerable colleagues: other female nurses (Croft & Cash 2012; Purpora 2012). Nurses are, to some extent, uncomfortably complicit in the sexism that prevails throughout society and restricts the nursing profession from attaining greater influence in policy and management decisions.



The average age of an Australian nurse is 44.4 years (AIHW 2016). More than a third of nurses are over fifty years old (AIHW 2016). Ageism is prevalent and has been normalised throughout Australian society through euphemisms, such as the ‘burden’ of our ‘ageing population’, jokes about ‘senior moments’, and cosmetics designed to help people appear younger than they are (Chrisler et al. 2016). Older nurses are more likely to be silenced and marginalised by virtue of our society’s attitude towards their age. Further, women are judged more harshly for their age, and its physical manifestation, than men are (Chrisler et al. 2016). Nursing being dominated by women opens us up to this negative side-effect more than other non-female-dominated professions. The older average age of nurses contributes to us being made invisible when attempting to influence policy and management decisions. However, ageism does not appear to be something that nurses specifically are complicit in maintaining to their own detriment; it remains, instead, an example of how nurses are silenced without our own complicity.



Nursing uniforms can, depending on one’s perspective, be regarded as a hard-earned badge of honour, a symbol of a united and professional front, or a veil that dehumanises nurses and acts as a barrier between them and their patients (Sherwin 2015). Nurses uniforms can symbolise power and control; for example, in my hospital, they clearly distinguish a Nurse Unit Manager from a Registered Nurse (Sherwin 2015). Uniforms are generally functional and practical for patient work, enable the patients to identify nurses, and indicate that the person wearing that uniform is a professional (Sulanke & Shrimp 2015). However, such benefits seem not to be required of doctors, who, one might argue, patients can also generally identify and recognise as a professional despite wearing free dress. While nurses around Australia are expected to wear clean, pressed uniforms, medical students and doctors can attend patients wearing anything from a three piece suit, to a cocktail dress, to jeans and a t-shirt. Uniforms are arguably a way of dehumanising the nurse into an impersonal ‘other’, such that if the patient was not paying attention, the nurse on one shift would blur into the nurse on the next shift and so on. I contend that by one health care profession being required to wear a uniform while another is not, this supports a systematic inequality that undermines and silences nurses and reinforces the health care hierarchy. Nurses have, over time, voted to keep their uniforms, while doctors refuse to consider uniforms, perpetuating this cycle of inequality and marginalisation in which nursing loses out to other, more dominant health care professions (Naughton, 2014).


Health care hierarchies

Nurses have long been socialised into selflessly and diligently performing the orders and directions of physicians and hospital management (Urban 2014). While this attitude continues a strong historical tradition of nurse as subordinate, modern nurses are uncomfortably complicit in upholding the patriarchal and medicine-dominated hospital hierarchy by minimising our knowledge and skills (Urban 2014). How many times has a highly capable and experienced nurse stepped back to instead let a medical intern perform venipuncture, despite that submission delaying the blood test for half an hour while the intern is located, then in turn, inexpertly locates a vein. Patients are admitted under a physician or surgeon’s name, while a never-ending rotation of anonymous nurses follow their directions (Croft & Cash 2012). While such subservience is pressed upon nurses as essential to maintaining ‘order’ and patient safety, it is also an example of how nurses consent to remain invisible in the shadow of other, more powerful professions higher in the healthcare hierarchy.


Our future as a profession

The purpose of penning these examples was not to accuse nurses of being the source of our own problems. I am proud to be a nurse, and yet I have found myself guilty of every example I have enumerated above. I wrote this article to remind my treasured and respected fellow nurses to be more aware of the impact that our own actions have in perpetuating the broader societal attitudes towards our own profession. Just because our reality surrounds us should not cause us to blindly accept it as inevitable. Our every action is a choice for the kind of future we want as a profession.



AIHW 206,

Brown, Brian 2009, ‘Men in nursing: Re-evaluating masculinities, re-evaluating gender’ Contemporary Nurse, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 120-129

Chrisler, J, Barney, A & Palatino, B 2016, ‘Ageism can be hazardous to women’s health: ageism, sexism and stereotypes older women in the healthcare system’, Journal of Social Issues, vol. 72, no. 1, pp. 86-104

Croft, Rhonda & Cash, Penelope 2012, ‘Deconstructing contributing factors to bullying and lateral violence in nursing using a post colonial feminist lens’ Contemporary Nurse, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 226-242

Naughton, Louise 2014, ‘McDonaldising the community nursing workforce’, Community Practitioner, vol. 87, no. 4, pp. 16-10

Purpora, Christina 2012, ‘Horizontal violence among hospital staff nurses related to oppressed self or oppressed group’, Journal of Professional Nursing, vol. 28, no. 5, pp. 306-314

Sherwin 2015, ‘To wear or not to wear- that is the question: should school nurses wear a uniform’ British Journal of School Nursing, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 148-149

Sulanke, Jennifer & Shrimp, Kevin 2015, ‘What works: implementing an evidence-based nursing dress code to enhance professional image’, American Nurse Today, vol. 10, no. 10, <>

Urban, Ann-Marie 2014, ‘Taken for granted: normalising nurses’ work in hospitals’, Nursing Inquiry, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 69-78


  1. A well structured article, but unfortunately based on long outdated assumptions. The writer bases their argument on the male paradigm. No critical feminists argue that ‘women are less privileged in society’, and that assumption was left behind 20 years ago. It’s a left over (but then vital) tool of earlier dogmatic feminist workers to get change happening.

    The article argues on the male basis that money equals power, instead of the female basis that health, happiness and family equals power. How do we measure power – money, poor health and early deaths ? Do we measure power via health, happiness, family and longer lives ? Or maybe a bit of both ? I welcome constructive criticism, but I just can’t find any fault with measuring true power via health, happiness, family and longer lives.

    Our entire Health paradigm is also based on health, happiness and family … not money.

    The notion that a female Nurses bully and hurt each other because of male dominance was thrown out years ago, for its disempowering and dishonest assumptions. Nurses have control over our situation, and there are no excuses for our violence towards each other.

    Uniforms are more common towards the bottom of the social strata, and we’ve done well in that area of change. If we don’t like it, we can’t all be sacked for wearing more appropriate clothing (although uniforms are easier to work with in context of bodily fluids etc), so blaming upper male eschalons is a cop out for our apathy.

    Sexism: the male yardstick used in the article certainly ‘proves’ men have more power; a female yardstick ‘proves’ women have more power. A neutral and objective yardstick shows we have different but equal power: (1) if we argue from a male perspective, we conclude that men have more money so therefore more power. If we argue from a female perspective, we find that women have more power via generally better health, are happier, live significantly longer and still have fundamental power over the most crucial aspect of life – family, kids, home etc. Critical feminists have long overturned womens’ early revolutionary desires to be identical to men (money, isolated from family, early deaths, physically aggressive, neglect of intimate family nurturing), to focus on womens’ power to be equal (not the same) with men. Those hard thinking and unpopular critical feminists understand that equality is not similarity.

    Their lives of hard struggle are helping all of us to see there are no real barriers – I loved swapping my income, educational opportunities, social status, career etc to be a poverty ridden and much happier and valuable House Dad, less trivial stuff like money and social status, in exchange for the immensely powerful responsibility for nurturing my son.

    Like females in traditional male spheres, male Nursing students and beginning Clinicians generally experience extreme hostility and bullying for being male (1) that selects for the most aggressive and insensitive male students (2) it makes those more aggressive male Clinicians feel unwelcome ‘on the wards’ (3) males are still largely expected and conditioned to seek more money and ‘prestige’ (4) the hostility and drive for money and seniority drives males away from clinical into management (exceptions include areas where males feel more useful, welcome and less emotionally difficult – OT, Psych, ED, ICU etc.

    Ever been abused by a high ranking ANUM for working in Paeds or Surgical for being male ? Sums it up really.

  2. Although written and referenced well, and some good points I see in practice, I did feel a strong feminist bias/agenda which was not bracketed or disclosed. That said perhaps a feminist theory could be beneficial to the profession…

    It’s been interesting to observe the change in medicine, as majority of med graduates (all Uni degrees in fact) are now women and how this has influenced the culture in medicine over the past 10 years. We are slowly seeing a deconstruction in systemic bullying in med a lot rising from sexual miscondunct / harressment claims of female med/surg reg’s (at the expense of many interns now not having jobs to go to as teaching hospitals loose their accreditation) – To go back to the point of the invisiblity of nurses – perhaps by adding to the discussion of nursing (or hospitals in General) also being run as large bureaucracies; decisions, are frequently made without any proven change theories put into practice. The feeling of being invisible I believe goes beyond just that of nurse’s and that felt by the majority of clinical staff all following ‘some bull shit policy which some idiot wrote’.
    In addition The average public hospital as a work place is farily dysfunctional, and far from socially contemporary for professionals in 2019, especially for nurses.

    To reenter the point about medicine grads primarily being female – and the culture shift in med, perhaps feminist theory could be beneficial to nursing; affirmative action to recruit a nursing workforce that is gender consistent with our population roughly 50/50.

    Tim BN, RN, M.Nurs

  3. Kelly
    Invisibility is in the nature of our nursing work, we do it behind curtains. That is a problem in an economic environment where everything is measured in monetary terms.
    Nightingale wrote:
    … I must not crave for the Patient to be always recognising my services. On the contrary: the best service I can give is that the Patient shall scarcely be aware of any.’
    Nursing is about the PATIENT – I think we need a language that reflects the value of that invisible patient/nurse relationship in a mutually meaningful way.

  4. Emily thank you I am so pleased to read you thoughts about nursing because you have made great sense of how our inequality and ineffectiveness as leaders is powerfully undermined by such simple things like the mere practicalities of our uniforms, for instance! I ask why Our subservience continues , particularly in Aged Care , right now , where it can be argued my father died last week due to nurse understaffing and a persistent and powerful suppression of nursing voices by big business to improve the Care. How long will it take for Nurses to be taken seriously and safe nursing care be implemented? I have been asking for twenty years, sadly nurses have been asking for hundreds of years . Bitter and cynical many of us think it will never happen 😥

  5. There is so much truth in this article. Thank you for articulating this ‘invisibility’!

    We need to be front and centre in management and policy discussion and decision making for a positive future in Australian healthcare. We can only do this by breaking through our ‘invisibility’ and commanding recognition for the invaluable contribution that is made by nurses in healthCARE in Australia.

  6. I don’t agree that older nurses are the only ones facing ageism. In my experience there is no one more invisible than a young nurse.
    In the same world where a 23 year old can run a multinational tech company, a young nurse isn’t allowed to offer an opinion. This is something we do to ourselves.
    Clinical skill might comes with experience but good ideas can come from anyone.

  7. Well done for writing this article. It must have taken a lot of courage, Emily, and you are so right. I have sent this out over a very long international email list that I run and I expect some replies. You are welcome to join the list if you like. Email me at
    Linda Shields, Prof Rural Health, Charles Sturt University

  8. This is a well written and clearly thought out piece which I can both see myself in, and wish I couldn’t at the same time. On a positive note for me I am putting change proposals out there on the table, and completing post grad study to back myself and improve my big-picture view.

    • Hi Kelly, so great to hear that you are being proactive about creating change! Let us know if you ever have ideas that ACN could support you with.

  9. this was difficult to read. i’ve been wearing various nursing uniforms for forty years, including the cap and veil. do i feel invisible? yes, at times. i am the ageism, i am the uniform and the hierarchy. at times, i feel undervalued as a nurse, my opinion is not heard, considered. i’m with the doctor’s patient, often explaining what is happening as this detail has been overlooked and yet, the doctor is thanked. i’ve had a wonderful career but am glad to be at this end of it . . .

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective Kim. We have hope that together, as a profession with one voice, we can make change for a better future.

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