Over-worked but ‘good’: Nursing, normative femininity and austerity ideology in Swedish healthcare

by Rebecca Selberg

News of crisis in the public sector has been an increasingly common topic in Sweden during the last decades. Lately, the state of public healthcare has become a major political issue after numerous reports of overworked and underpaid staff failing their patients. Azime, a thirty-two year-old ward nurse employed at a teaching hospital in Sweden, sighed when I brought up this subject. She really loved being a nurse, she told me, but the job would also drain her completely; there was simply too much to do, and not enough people or time to do it. Plus, she felt that the collective “girly-girl” attitude among nurses was one of the reasons they were so exploited and underpaid. As she explained all this to me, she narrowed in on the challenging topic of femininity at work:

The best thing about our job is being able to take care of people. The worst thing about this work is the salary. We have all this responsibility and we get nothing for it. Another thing is – you see, nurses are such wimps. We have the weakest union ever and we are the weakest union members, real wimps. Only good girls become nurses.

I interviewed Azime for my PhD-project, an institutional ethnography exploring the relationship between gender, nursing, and working conditions in the Swedish public sector after decades of austerity ideology. One of the issues I was curious about was the link between nurses as respectable middleclass women and the tendency for this group of employees to accept and cope with intensified working conditions. Azime’s statement pointed me in a specific direction: that of normative femininity, a concept I use to try to understand and explain how some forms of femininity are associated with motherhood, responsibility, respectability, and a certain degree of power over others, such as children or patients. While normative femininity gives women and nurses a certain status in society, it is also what politicians and administrators have used to justify poor conditions and poor pay in the care work setting. The nurses in my study went out of their ways to cope and to provide care beyond the organizational means available. At the same time, many of them felt some sense of culpability for the state of affairs. They seemed inhibited by being too much of a “good girl”, as Azime put it.

Spelberg_image1On the one hand, the ability to embody the position of a ‘good girl’ is a privilege, based on the exclusion of other forms of femininities that are not constructed as ‘good’. In Sweden, as in many other countries, nursing is an overwhelmingly white occupation, so there are racial dimensions to this as well. On the other hand, being a ‘good girl’ is stressful, draining, and leaves people vulnerable to exploitation. ‘Good’ but overworked nurses are, I argue, an effect of a certain conflation of neoliberal ideology and the gender project of normative femininity. This is one way of looking at the multiple and complex ways in which gender and other structures of power such as the welfare state and capitalist economy intersect at the level of the workplace.

By Rebecca Selberg, assistant professor in Gender Studies, Lund University. Her book, Femininity at Work: Gender, Labour and Changing Relations of Power in a Swedish Hospital, was reviewed in the December 2013 issue of Gender & Society. To read the review click here.

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