Steven Littlehale

Sometimes even simple observations can be explosive. I made one recently that managed to bring a congenial dinner party to a halt, causing old and new friends to squirm over their perfectly prepared cod cakes in tomato sauce.

We were going around the table sharing about our professional lives; the diversity of talents and careers was remarkable. After I shared that I was a nurse and navigated the usual “what hospital” inquiries, I concluded by saying, “I’m very aware that my successful career in nursing had as much to do with my being a man as it did with my talents.” Silence followed by more silence… and then the responses began.

First, the people closest to me assured me — or perhaps assured the new friends at the table — that I had demurred: My career was extraordinary, I’d made a huge difference in the field, et cetera. Everyone, eager to move on and resolve the tension, agreed. I thanked them again, but dissented.

“Yes, I have strengths, but I was never the best clinician or the smartest person in the room,” I insisted. “However, my thoughts and opinions, strategies and ideas often would eclipse my female peers, seemingly because I have a different chromosome.” 

It wasn’t a conscious act by any party involved, but still, I can’t help but wonder how much opportunity I’ve been afforded due to my gender. 

In the mid-1990s, I was responsible for creating an interdisciplinary symposium in celebration of National Nurses Week, at the large teaching nursing home in Boston where I began my career. The keynote address was titled “Feminism and Nursing.” The medical director caught me right before the start of the event to commiserate about how disenfranchising this topic must be for me. His self-assured expression changed to disapproval when I shared with him that I had chosen both the topic and the speaker, and that I considered myself a feminist. 

Well, that went over swimmingly! But I had anticipated it — in fact, I’d been spoiling for this encounter. This medical director had recently said to the DON in a public meeting, “I knew you would be a good nurse and director, because you’re such a good mother.” 

He made it through about half the keynote address, then left. But in fairness, there were no snacks. 

Decades later, I wonder how much has really changed. At healthcare conferences that are clinically/quality oriented, the podium is mostly occupied by women. Yet at executive, owner/operator, and investor healthcare conferences, it’s the opposite. More than once, I and others have noted that the podium is fully or mostly occupied by men.

Let’s zoom out a little bit from my personal anecdotes to think more about the underlying issue. Earlier this month I attended the virtual conference sponsored by Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership. This annual conference, in its 43rd year, is “dedicated to manifesting equity, allyship and gender parity in leadership.” There, I learned specific actions that demonstrate an authentic commitment to leadership inclusion and guidance on how to overcome the obstacles that women encounter in obtaining leadership positions, even within a female-dominated profession.

Listening to the conference’s distinguished speakers helped me distill some key thoughts to share. 

Simone Biles shared that “Walking away from the Olympic Games was a win in itself. … It was probably the most courageous I’ve ever been.” Her message of finding strength and courage in her vulnerability made me reflect upon how many nurses we lost during the pandemic. Can we create a work environment for our nurses that allows weakness, where it’s “OK to not be OK”?

Molly Fletcher revealed that “We can’t create courage unless we are curious,” and that “Fearlessness starts with curiosity.” This skillset took down institutional barriers that attempted to thwart her success in sports because she was a woman. Yet her words reminded me of the Cause-and-Effect tool that we use often in our QAPI process. Can asking “why” and being authentically curious also help our staff overcome obstacles in the workplace?

Amanda Gorman described how, through poetry, she developed her “muscles of courage from a young age.” She continued, “Whenever I stood up for myself at school, I was to return home, tell my mom, and be applauded. Courage starts at home, it starts with the self, it starts young. It’s not something we arrive at randomly in adulthood.”

For our staff whose background didn’t engender courage, though, it’s not too late. Gorman shared that, “Courage isn’t the absence of fear but the recognition that there is something more important than fear. It’s how we begin to articulate our dreams.”

Luvvie Ajayi Jones made me squirm. 

“In the absence of fear, there is no courage. If it’s easy, it’s not brave.” She turned the tables on fear and made it an essential quality for movement. “I consider regret one of my biggest worst-case scenarios. I often ask myself: Will my silence convict me? Will my inaction make me proud?” 

To solve our staffing shortage, we must address the issue of gender parity in leadership. And to do that, we must embrace our fear, speak up, and act; we must start the tough conversations. Why aren’t women — and more men — pursuing a career in nursing, whether as clinicians or healthcare executives? Why are there so few faculty to educate nursing students in ways that illuminate the varied roles available within the field? Or, for an even better question: Without access to the full range of opportunities, why would someone pursue a career in nursing at all? 

We must have answers that go beyond the usual platitudes. We need to be able to point to pay commensurate with professions that involve similar risks and responsibilities, career trajectories that include leadership/managerial positions if desired, and an environment where everyone’s voice is heard and respected. 

Until we can, we’ll continue to put Band-Aids on the issue of gender parity — and on other critical issues I lack the space to touch on here. My privilege not only as a man, but as a white man, would easily warrant an entire separate blog post. So would the pervasive problem of horizontal (peer-to-peer) violence in nursing. Yet we can create a path forward, if we embody the courage I heard from each of these conference speakers. Even if it spoils a dinner party or two.

I’m giving Luvvie the last word: “Be a disruptor for good. What is happening in the room is absolutely your business. Elevate the space by spending your privilege and power. Challenging an idea will not get you fired.”

Steven Littlehale is a gerontological clinical nurse specialist and chief innovation officer at Zimmet Healthcare Services Group.

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.