Eleven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, with a collection of colorful cloth masks hanging by my back door, I know that in addition to protecting against the spread of the virus, masks have protected me from another unwanted intrusion.
As a health care provider, I often find that wearing a face mask weakens my practice. But as a woman, I’ve found it’s a relief.
I’ve worked as a community health nurse doing home visits for most of the past seven years. When I arrive outside someone’s home, I do an inventory of my supplies: gloves, face shield, mask, sanitizer, stethoscope, blood pressure cuff, pulse oximeter. I feel like an astronaut exploring a new planet as I knock on someone’s door in my layers of plastic and fabric.
But wearing a mask has made so many personal interactions more difficult. I’ve talked with clients about their suicidal thoughts, the death of loved ones during the pandemic, their fears, and loneliness.
How can I convey compassion behind all these layers? I nod more, now that the subtleties of facial expressions are gone. I try to put into words what used to be a more nuanced quilt of nonverbal and verbal communication. I accept that some things are just lost.
Harassment in health care
And while some things are harder beneath the layers, there have been gains. That I like disappearing behind a layer of fabric says something about the culture, as I feel less vulnerable to sexual harassment.
As a nurse, that began for me when I was still a student. Talking with a patient’s family in a pediatric hospital in St. Louis with my nurse preceptor, one of the family members interrupted us to tell us that while he thought we were both cute, he thought my nurse preceptor was prettier.
I was dumbfounded. In the middle of trying to do our jobs, caring for the health of a hospitalized child, we were being reviewed and ranked based on our appearances.
These types of comments have continued throughout my career, both in the hospital and home setting, which can feel especially vulnerable.
As a home visitor, one of the most basic elements of training is to position yourself closest to the exit, should you need to immediately leave if things become unsafe. Luckily, I’ve never had to, but I have felt acutely aware of my vulnerability working in people’s homes.
Once, when I needed to assess a pressure sore on the lower back of one of my client’s in his apartment, he said that he would love to pull down his pants for me.
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The interaction had suddenly shifted from routine and medical to predatory. But I had developed tools at that point. I had learned to work through the shock, and told him how inappropriate his behavior was.
Later, I reported the incident to my manager and we discussed a plan moving forward. These aren’t skills anyone should have to develop, but many of us do, no matter where we work.
Overwhelmingly ‘women’s work’
While more men have gone into the nursing profession, the field continues to be dominated by women. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2019, 89% of registered nurses identify as female.
Nurses are often sexualized in our culture, from short-skirted Halloween costumes to cartoons that show children representations of curvy, coy nurses. These images may seem irrelevant, but they perpetuate a stereotype of nurses as female, sexual, and non-intellectual.
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Nurses, like other service-providers, face the challenge of dealing with sexual harassment from the people they are tasked with caring for. One 2018 poll of health care providers found that 71% of nurses had experienced sexual harassment from a patient.
Educational institutions need to prepare students before they arrive in the field on their rights, responsibilities, and various paths to address real-world sexual harassment situations they may encounter.
For me, it has been empowering to learn how to directly respond to comments when I feel safe enough to do that. I’ve had patients apologize to me and we’ve maintained professional working relationships beyond these comments.
Liz Brockland in Chicago, in March 2019.
When something off happens, it doesn’t mean that the only path is to refuse to engage. I’ve found power in direct conversations and in moving forward with the nurse-patient relationship.
Still, it’s exhausting. Masks have been a reprieve from the day-to-day experiences of being an American woman. Masks have made me question the notion that I should wear make-up to feel professional in a meeting or job interview. Masks have made me feel protected from gazes and comments. It may be a false sense of security, but it reflects the vulnerability many women often feel, when our appearances at times seem to be elevated above our professional experience.
I’m not advocating that women ever be required to conceal their bodies more in public, as some cultures demand. And I also acknowledge that the majority of my day-to-day work experiences feel professional, safe, and respectful.
But the relief I’ve experienced wearing a mask should make everyone consider how women are treated when the masks come off, and we’re dressed like the men are, but experiencing work in a very different way.
Liz Brockland, RN, BSN, is a community health nurse at Rush University College of Nursing and a Public Voices Fellow in The OpEd Project.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nurse: Masking up for COVID-19 brings relief from sexual harassement