“As nurses, we’re expected to provide quality health care to people from a variety of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Without diversity among our ranks, it’s almost impossible to do that.”

That’s how May Wykle, RN, PhD, FAAN, explains her decision to make diversity the focus of her term as the 24th president of Sigma Theta Tau International (STTI), the Honor Society of Nursing.

The society, whose mission is to provide leadership and scholarship in nursing practice, education and research in order to enhance the health of all people and improve nursing care worldwide, has 120,000 active members in 90 countries. Yet, like the nursing profession itself, STTI remains predominately white and female. When Wykle, who is African American, began her two-year term as president in 2001, its membership was 96% female and 93% white.

“Since we are the international honor society of the profession, we should take the lead in defining diversity and making a commitment to achieving it,” asserts Wykle, a distinguished scholar, researcher and geriatric health specialist who is currently dean and Florence Cellar Professor of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University’s Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing in Cleveland. “The diversity in nursing should mirror that of the general population. My definition of diversity is a broad one that includes cultural diversity, but also diversity of gender, backgrounds, resources and talents.”

To achieve these goals, the honor society has launched an ambitious initiative designed to increase and celebrate all forms of diversity within its membership ranks and in the nursing profession as a whole. The push began last year with the creation of a Diversity Task Force, whose responsibilities included drafting the organization’s official position statement on the subject, “Community Through Diversity: A Diversity Statement for Sigma Theta Tau International.”

In stating STTI’s overall motivation in pursuing diversity, the position paper notes that “diversity creates an opportunity to support a mosaic of cultural distinctiveness and nursing excellence through inclusivity, personal and professional development and the stimulation to think in different ways.”

Diversity at the Top

Sigma Theta Tau’s commitment to “the value and active engagement of diversity in achieving the society’s vision” encompasses 10 points, beginning with encouraging dialogue at the both the individual and chapter levels. The society’s more than 400 local chapters and their members are charged with finding ways to enhance diversity, such as developing educational programs that promote diversity, cultural competence and community building.

The initiative also stresses the importance of reflecting diversity in the society’s leadership by seeking officers and committee members from culturally diverse backgrounds. This “starting at the top” approach is vital to any organization’s efforts to build diversity, according to STTI Vice President Carol Picard, RN, PhD.

“You diversify an organization from the top to the bottom and horizontally,” explains Picard, associate director of the Graduate Program in Nursing at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston. “Having a diverse leadership makes a difference in [attracting more minority nurses and men] into the organization and in how we present Sigma Theta Tau to the world.”

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This year, in addition to Wykle, the organization’s board of directors includes one other African-American woman and three men, including one European. And for the first time, the organization has elected a man, Daniel Pesut, RN, PhD, CS, FAAN, to the position of president-elect. Pesut has been involved in Sigma Theta Tau since his 1976 induction as a nursing student.

“For STTI, diversity is a means to building a community,” he says. “We want a diverse membership so that we can attract the best of the creative minds and backgrounds to build a stronger community within the organization.”

Pesut, who is professor and chair of the Department of Environments for Health at the Indiana University School of Nursing in Indianapolis, feels that attracting more minority and male nurses into the organization can best be accomplished on a one-on-one basis backed by national media coverage.

“We need more coverage of the different kinds of things that men are doing in nursing,” he adds. “The reason I am a nurse is that it gives me creativity and flexibility in career roles. You can be a consultant, you can practice, you can teach. You can do a variety of things with the same fundamental education.”

Going Local

While the honor society’s national leaders are spearheading the diversity initiative, much of the responsibility for actually changing the demographics of the organization will rest with its local chapters. At the chapter level, diversity doesn’t just mean attracting more male and minority members, but also providing education programs on cultural competence to help all local nurses better meet the needs of the diverse patient bases they serve.

Many STTI chapters have found success in attracting more nurses from underrepresented populations into their membership by jointly sponsoring educational and networking events with other local and regional nursing organizations.

“In Boston, our chapter has partnered with the New England Black Nurses Association to hold a luncheon with a guest speaker,” says Picard. “From those types of events, nurses learn about us and we can establish relationships with [minority] nurses who might be interested in joining Sigma Theta Tau. In turn, these new members take our message back to their nursing colleagues.

“I hope to see more such partnerships engaged in dialogues at the local level,” she adds. “That will give us the broadest impact across the world.”

The honor society will learn more about how well its chapters are implementing the diversity plan at the local level when chapter annual reports are submitted in July.

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Encouraging Diversity Today–and Tomorrow

Attracting more men and nurses of color into its current membership is just one aspect of Sigma Theta Tau’s diversity goals. The honor society is also exploring ways to increase the racial, cultural and gender diversity of the nursing profession in the future. One local chapter, for example, is sponsoring a Girl Scout troop.

“We have to talk about the importance of nursing [careers] in the early grades,” Wykle explains. “Nursing has always been held in the highest esteem among racial and ethnic minority groups. We need to build on that.”

One barrier she hopes to challenge is the career advice many minority students interested in nursing careers receive from guidance counselors. “So many of them are counseled to go into two-year [nursing] programs,” she says. “These programs are fine, but students need to be encouraged to keep going and earn a higher degree.”

Wykle believes the low number of associate-degree and diploma students who choose to continue their nursing education at four-year universities can be blamed on the misconception that “a nurse is a nurse is a nurse.” Disproving that myth by demonstrating the career advantages a BSN degree brings would play a key role in drawing more minorities into nursing leadership roles, she adds.

“Once we have attracted a diverse group of students into nursing programs, we want to make sure they have access to faculty and practicing nurses who can provide mentorship and other types of support that help retain minority students,” the STTI president continues. “It’s one thing to bring in people [from diverse backgrounds], but we also have to ensure that they’ll stay in the profession.”

Still another key item on the Honor Society of Nursing’s diversity agenda is to address the disparities in health outcomes and quality of care between Caucasian populations and persons of color. As Wykle puts it, “We want it to be an even playing field.”

To meet this challenge, Sigma Theta Tau hopes to influence the nursing research community so that more members of underrepresented minority groups will be included in research studies.

“To change [health care] practice, you have to have the evidence,” Wykle points out. “Nursing needs research not only to discover improvements in patient care but also to contribute to the growth of the profession. STTI envisions research being conducted not just by nurse scientists with PhDs, but by nurses at all levels who value research and want to solve clinical problems. If nurses don’t do the research, who will?”

Diversity on a Global Scale

Because Sigma Theta Tau is an international society, efforts to promoting diversity within its membership must take a global approach. The organization has chapters in Canada, Brazil, The Netherlands, Hong Kong, Korea, Pakistan and several other countries. This can sometimes cause STTI’s leaders to reexamine membership policies that work well in North America but may not be effective in other parts of the world.

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The society’s traditional chapter model is one such structure currently under examination. In the past, STTI chapters have always been affiliated with a university. Now, several nurses in Africa have expressed an interest in forming a Pan-Africa chapter. The nurses involved are national leaders in the profession and members of an association that meets regularly but is not affiliated with a university.

“They came forward to the eligibility committee and said, ‘this is how we connect [professionally] and we would like our association to be the way we bring Sigma Theta Tau to our nurses,’” Picard explains. “So we’re working with them to establish a new chapter model that will fit their needs.”

Being able to interact with international nurses from a diverse range of countries and cultures is a big draw for STTI members, according to Richard Smith, RN, MSN, who has held various local and national positions in Sigma Theta Tau and now serves on its national Public Relations Committee. “You have the opportunity to work very closely with people throughout the world who are working toward a common goal of promoting professional aspects of nursing, whether it’s research or another objective,” he says. “You benefit from gaining their [international] insights and perspectives.”

To Be Continued

Wykle knows that all of her goals won’t be accomplished before her term as president expires next spring. She’s hoping, however, that her two years at the helm have laid the foundation for Sigma Theta Tau International to not only increase its own racial, ethnic and gender diversity but also change the way nursing care is delivered to people of color.

“I think this initiative will eventually impact nursing significantly,” she explains. “Having an international honor organization step up and call for more diversity in nursing is going to improve the image of the profession. It’s going to attract a more diverse group of people into nursing and also attract more young people. We can’t do all of this in two years, but we can have people become more aware of the differences in care [available to white versus minority populations] and work toward a goal of erasing those disparities. We can help people understand that nursing is a wonderful, open profession.”

Becoming a Member

The opportunity to help increase the racial, cultural and gender diversity of one of nursing’s most respected professional organizations isn’t the only reason why nurses of color and male nurses should think about joining Sigma Theta Tau International. Membership in this prestigious international honor society, whose name is synonymous with excellence, leadership and scholarship in nursing, offers many benefits that can help advance your career and foster the achievement of your personal goals, whether your interest lies in clinical practice, education or research.

Adding STTI membership to a resume or vita sets a nurse apart as someone who is interested in playing a leadership role in the profession, says Richard Smith, RN, MSN, who serves on the society’s national Public Relations Committee. “The organization stands behind research and supports evidence-based practices,” he explains. “STTI’s emphasis on scholarship and professionalism is its most outstanding feature.”

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Smith, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Nursing in Little Rock, notes that his involvement with STTI has benefited him in every stage of his career: as a student, a clinical nurse and now as a faculty member.

“Sigma Theta Tau has opportunities for you no matter what your particular career focus is–whether you’re a clinician who works in a hospital or even a self-employed nurse entrepreneur,” he states. “There’s a heavy emphasis on research, which is necessary for good evidence-based practices. If you’re a faculty member, you want to prepare your students with the latest information for achieving better patient outcomes. Sigma Theta Tau is a good vehicle for that.”

Currently, more than 60% of the organization’s active members are clinicians, 23% are administrators or supervisors and 17% are educators or researchers. Sixty percent of STTI members hold advanced degrees.

How does the honor society recruit new members? Most of them are invited to join while still in nursing school. Undergraduate students must have completed at least half of the nursing curriculum, have a GPA of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale, rank in the upper 35 percentile of their class and meet the society’s expectation of academic integrity. Graduate students must have completed 25% of their curriculum and have a GPA of at least 3.5.

“Student members have access to the same benefits [of STTI membership] that are available to nurses who have been working in the field for many years,” says Smith. “Plus, students have the added advantage of being able to develop a mentor relationship with more experienced STTI members. For graduate students, it’s an opportunity to be involved with faculty as a peer member of the same organization, not just as a student.”

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Membership in Sigma Theta Tau isn’t just open to students–practicing nurses are often invited to join as well. They must be RNs, be legally recognized to practice in their country, hold at least a baccalaureate degree in nursing and have demonstrated achievement in the profession.

For these nurses, there is less emphasis on the grade point average they may have earned years ago, emphasizes STTI Vice President Carol Picard, RN, PhD. “We’re looking for people who are community leaders. I can remember having someone come to me and say, ‘my GPA was only 2.9 but I’d like to join.’ This person happened to be running the HIV action committee for a large city,” Picard says, adding that the nurse’s professional accomplishments and contributions to health care outweighed her lack of a 3.0 average.

Even though membership in STTI is invitational, Daniel Pesut, RN, PhD, CS, FAAN, who next year will become the honor society’s first male president, encourages qualified nurses to be proactive about becoming involved in the organization, rather than waiting for an invitation to join. “Visit our Web site and find a chapter near you,” he recommends. “If someone is actively making a contribution to the nursing profession, he or she can certainly seek membership by getting connected with the local chapter.”

For more information, contact:

Sigma Theta Tau International
550 West North Street
Indianapolis, IN 46202
(888) 634-7575
Fax (317) 634-8188

Photo by Daquella manera

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