Nursing the wounds of oppression

Most of us have experienced or witnessed abuse in the workplace in one form or another, but how many of us engage in abusive behaviours – consciously or unconsciously? What systems and frameworks perpetuate oppression and allow this abuse to occur? Most importantly, what can we do about it?

These are some of the tough questions that social science Professor Merle Jacobs explores in her new book Women’s Work: Racism and Trauma. Her book exposes racialization as a lived experience in the workplace, examining issues of collegiality, domination and conflict. Ultimately, it provides a comprehensive understanding of the kinds of interaction that can lead to a supportive work environment, or conversely, a toxic one.

Right: Merle Jacobs

Though much of her research is transferrable to any number of working environments, Jacobs focuses specifically on the nursing profession and addresses a critical issue that few scholars have dared to tackle: women abusing women at work. She provides an in-depth analysis of the kinds of structures that facilitate these behaviours and criticizes our health-care system for creating a professional culture that she emphasizes “pits nurse against nurse”.

Nursing is a largely female dominated profession and it is typically white women who occupy positions of power, notes Jacobs. The health-care system, like other systems, is deeply structured around hierarchies with interlocking influences such as race, ethnicity, class and gender. In nursing, these hierarchies have created what Jacobs’ refers to as the “Cappuccino Principle” – with white individuals at the top and brown at the bottom. Jacobs developed this principle in her book The Cappuccino Principle: Health, Culture and Social Justice in the Workplace. Her current research builds on the principle, exploring how it creates a culture of racism and how this reality has fostered an environment of trauma and helplessness.

“As women we all experience exploitation and oppression and yet not all of us share a common oppression,” says Jacobs, who draws on over 30 years of first-hand experience as a manager and staff nurse in the field. “Limited research has been done in this area and the women’s movement in Canada has failed to generate any in-depth analysis of how privileged women are in fact oppressing other women. We’ve essentially created a damaged workforce: nurses are taking care of people who rely on them for help, care and support, when in fact, they themselves are in need of care.”

Jacobs feels strongly that advocacy will be key in transforming this negative work culture. She also believes that economic justice and hiring transparency will play a critical role. Her book calls for new ways of responding to structural oppression and critiques workplaces that use the right buzz words – such as “anti-oppressive”, “equality”, “collegiality” or “diverse” – but don’t put those words into action.  

“Empowerment comes from action and action comes from advocacy,” she says. “Regrettably, as individuals, we don’t feel as though we are able to make change within our workplace. Collectively, however, we can develop strategies to dissuade abusive behaviour, encourage a larger analysis of how our government and community contribute to this issue, and act together to create awareness and advocate on behalf of our colleagues and ourselves.”

Jacobs’ next project will concentrate on the health and social well-being of Burmese refugees in Toronto. It’s a project very close to her heart: Jacobs is from Burma, now officially called the Union of Myanmar. She teaches in the School of Social Sciences in York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies.

For more information, contact Merle Jacobs at

Submitted to YFile by Kristin Taylor, Atkinson communications coordinator