It always surprises me when I discover prejudice in the NHS. Our beloved NHS, which I have such respect for, cannot possibly be an institution that perpetuates racism, can it?
I have spent the year touring the country at our Nursing Times Careers Live events with Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, who won our Nursing Times Chief Nursing Officers’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.
If you haven’t read her brilliant book Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union – about her life as the illegitimate child of a Nigerian-born father and white Irish Catholic mother, as well as her journey through nursing – you really should.
She speaks candidly about colleagues who believed she would never progress to being a ward sister because she was black. In the 1950s and 1960s she met colleagues who thought of her as “different”, and were ignorant that Africa was a continent not a country, and that someone like her could have been British-born even though her skin “was a little dark”.
“It seems prejudice is surviving and thriving in the NHS”
Was that ignorance an excusable sign of the times, and is that kind of ignorance still excusable in today’s modern multi-cultural UK and its health service?
Dame Elizabeth has told me there is no such thing as “unconscious bias” and feels strongly that leaders, managers and colleagues must do everything they can to encourage and inspire their black and minority ethnic (BME) staff to take on new roles, go for promotion and feel able to speak out about how they are treated and what holds them back from progressing.
At Bradford Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust’s health professionals conference this week, matron Rukeya Miah spoke about her experiences of being passed over for promotion - initially because of discrimination.
Ms Miah, originally from South Africa, highlighted how very few BME staff make it beyond band 7. During the lunchbreak, I met two more nurses, originally from overseas, who echoed these thoughts.
Still, it seems prejudice is surviving and thriving in the NHS. We have not cured the institution of it, though I want to highlight some good work going on. Barts Health Trust runs a support group for nurses who feel unable to progress because of their gender, sexual orientation or ethnic background.
“The truth is the colour of someone’s skin or where they were born doesn’t preclude them from being a senior manager. Yet many people feel it does”
It’s a stunning project designed to build confidence, and I’ve met some nurses who have found success in their personal and professional lives as a result of taking part in this project, which was also a 2016 Nursing Times Awards winner – this time in the Team of the Year category.
At the moment, the workforce crisis is so dire that the NHS is not just being supported by overseas staff – it’s being propped up entirely by them. They are its essential lifeforce. But it’s more than just the fact we are short of nurses that means we must embrace our overseas colleagues.
To represent our multicultural local communities effectively, we must have voices advocating for them who understand them – and who are them.
Society is changing, and our workforce must reflect that at all levels. The NHS Constitution’s values are to uphold equality – and yet is that principle of equality being as keenly applied to its staff as it is to its patients?
The truth is, the colour of someone’s skin or where they were born doesn’t preclude them from being a senior manager, from ascending to certain leadership roles or being good at a specific role. Yet many people feel that it does.
Dame Elizabeth’s tagline for 2017, her 70th birthday year, eloquently demonstrates how and why prejudice can be overcome: “1947 – born in shame, 2017 – made a dame”.