How I Made It

Martha Paynter, Nurse Activist

Martha Paynter is a Halifax-based nurse activist and founder of a non-profit which supports criminalized women in Nova Scotia who are pregnant or have young children. Here, she tells FLARE how she made it

A headshot of nurse and activist Monica Phung in a burgundy coat against a brick wall

(Photo: Monica Phung)

Martha Paynter; @MarthPaynter

How do you describe what you do to your parents?

I am a nurse activist. Nursing is the most dynamic profession, limitless in impact, and so fulfilling. I am a clinician, a writer, a scientist, a community organizer, an advocate. I like to talk about nursing as layered: first you nurse the self: eat lots, drink wine with friends, be with your family, ride your bicycle, rest. Then you nurse your patients: listen to them, observe them with wide-open eyes and a wide-open mind, and respond to their needs for encouragement, treatment, and understanding. Then you nurse your community, and this continues to mean the most basic of things: advocating for anti-discrimination, for affordable housing, for adequate income, for freedom from violence and oppression.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

Oh my goddess, I went to a lot of schools. I am working on my fifth degree and have studied at a dozen universities. Attending nursing school was so important to me. But what I want to talk about is Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific. I went there 20 years ago. We were 200 students from 100 countries, all on full scholarships, living and studying in cabins in the Pacific rainforest. The school was built with a vision of peace-building. We lived four to a room, in bunkbeds. My roommates were from Egypt, Mexico and Nigeria. When you know someone, and you know someone if you share a bedroom and a bathroom, you care about them, their language, religion, dance, food. Their safety and freedom. It is a very simple, powerful idea that has stayed with me since that time: know others, care about them, work for peace.

What was your first paying gig out of school? (In your field, or not.)

I am still in school! In 2002, while I was going my masters in economics, I started working as a research assistant at the Atlantic Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health. The Centre was a joint venture between Dalhousie University and the IWK Health Centre. I now work at both Dal and the IWK, teaching, researching and nursing in women’s health. Full circle.

What’s the worst gig you’ve ever done solely for money?

I worked for about a week at a café in Montreal during my BA at McGill. I was terrible at being told what to do by the men who owned the place. In fact, I was fired for my shoddy approach to mopping the floors.

What was your BIG break? How did you land it?

Starting Women’s Wellness Within (@withinwomens) certainly changed my life, and I see it making dents in the system, but the big break hasn’t happened yet. This is a non-profit organization that supports criminalized women in Nova Scotia who are pregnant or have young children. Our volunteers provide support during labour, teach how to maintain lactation during incarceration, and show up to court dates or medical appointments when friends and family are provinces away. No one was doing that, so we filled that gap. We realized that clinicians generally didn’t understand how criminalization is an economic, oppressive force against these women, that most criminalized women are victims of abuse, and they deserve profound empathy and care. In addition to connecting with incarcerated women, I started leading seminars for health care professionals and writing articles to address the many challenges these women face and offer collaborative solutions. When we implement alternatives to incarceration for all women, that will be it. We’ll get our big break, together.

What would you say has been your biggest fail, career-wise, to date? How did you bounce back?

In 2015, I quit a well-paid, senior government job and went back to school to become a nurse. It wasn’t a financially lucrative choice, obviously, but it was necessary. I saw a profound need for transformation in women’s reproductive health services and experiences, and I wanted to wear the gloves, not read the Excel sheets.

Name one piece of career advice you always give.

Assume you can do it. Women are less conditioned to jump up and say “Oh yes, I am excellent at that” unless they hold a PhD in it or have won Wimbledon. And this is because our society expects our modesty and is accustomed to our invisibility. But we are excellent. I think that 90 percent of success is speaking up.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

That I shouldn’t question authority. My mom likes to joke that she raised me specifically to question authority.

When you’re feeling low about your work, what’s the one thing you always do/watch/read/listen to bring yourself back up again?

It does me wonders to get some exercise. Ride my bike, go for a walk. And I need to see my girlfriends constantly. Some of my closest friends work with me on Women’s Wellness Within and on access to abortion, so we get together to plan rallies and letter writing campaigns and brainstorm fundraisers while we catch up on each other’s beautiful busy lives.

Who are your three favourite social media follows from your industry? What do you love about them?

My “industry” is complex: it’s nursing, feminism, academia and activism. I adore Marilou Gagnon, the prolific, bilingual, fearless Harm Reduction nurse expert. Her Instagram @ml_gagnon is cute and cuts like a knife. El Jones, a dear friend and anti-racist poet and professor in Halifax, writes searing Facebook posts that need to be edited into the next Autobiography of Malcom X. And Julie Lalonde (@JulieSLalonde) is brilliant, hilarious, excruciating feminist truth-telling.

How would you describe your industry in terms of representation and inclusivity?

Nursing is very white and over 90% women. I like that we are 90% women, I love working with women and for women. I am a maternity nurse! But we need to work hard to advance racial diversity and representation. Nursing is the largest workforce in the country. We do the majority of health care work. Our patients deserve to see themselves represented in our workforce. With better representation our work would be more appropriate to our patient’s needs, they would trust us more, feel more comfortable, recover faster.

What’s the most pressing issue facing women in your industry right now? What would fix it?

Nursing needs to keep claiming a big wide bench at the table. As nurses, we see the need for social services, pharmacare, dental care, child care, guaranteed minimum income, affordable housing and overdose prevention sites. We see that equity and compassion save more lives than any other intervention. There are 300,000 registered nurses in Canada. That’s extraordinary. We have an obligation to speak up against sexual harassment, violence, hierarchies and disrespect in our workplaces, to make the seismic shifts a workforce of this size is capable of. And with that will come the confidence and experience to speak up for political transformation.

Do you think you earn a similar wage as your male counterparts in your industry?

No, not at all, and not in any of my “industries.” In terms of my community work leading Women’s Wellness Within, it is 100% unpaid. StatsCan reports that in my age cohort (35-44), while 52% of women volunteer, only 44% of men do. Women also do 50% more unpaid household chores than men, meaning less of my life is available for paid work. As a future professor, I take note of StatsCan reports that women in academia make 11% less than men. In nursing, where women make up over 90% of the workforce, men ride the “glass elevator” and are promoted faster to management and senior positions. Both women and men need to be reflexive about why on earth we allow these inequities to continue.

Have you ever disclosed your salary to a colleague in the name of transparency? Why or why not?

Absolutely. Talking about money is how we learn about opportunities and to negotiate and grow. It is a right for everyone to have transparency in their industry.

Have you ever asked for a raise? If so, how did you phrase it and did you get it? If not, why not?

Yes. I said I would require a higher salary to accept the position. And yes, I got it. Assume you can do it!

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