Having been surrounded by inequality from an early age, Carol Baxter was determined to do something about it.
For Professor Carol Baxter, all it took to make equality and human rights an accepted part of core business in healthcare was a voice, a pen and a passion. Now head of equality, diversity and human rights for NHS Employers, she is arguably one of the UK’s pioneers on the topic. She also spearheaded its personal, fair and diverse champions scheme for all staff, which has just won a national award from the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion.
Professor Baxter led the campaign to encourage the NHS to take action against prejudice and discrimination in health and social care. It creates a network of self-volunteered “champions” to share and spread good practice, let their organisation know when things aren’t right and speak with colleagues to deliver more inclusive services.
Baxter started on this path by writing ground-breaking academia. She spoke at conferences and events in the late 1980s and early 1990s to raise awareness on the issue and link it to a business’s bottom line. The ignorance and imbalance occurring around her only illuminated the vision she had for deciphering what’s right and what needs fixing.
“Some people are born with a strong sense of social awareness,” says Baxter. “As a child growing up in Jamaica, I always knew, looking around me, that this world isn’t level. Not only did I not want to accept it but I wanted to do something about it.”
For her, inequality is a societal problem – and something that she feels impacts on everybody in different ways. She chose healthcare as a starting point to attempt to deal with what is a much larger problem.
Employing over 1.3 million people, the NHS has an example to set. More important than the quantity of employees, however, is the quality of services offered.
“The healthcare field has a huge obligation to promote equality and fairness because it deals with vulnerable people,” says Baxter.
She has been with NHS Employers since 2004 when, from her role as professor of nursing at Middlesex University, she was seconded to the equality and diversity team at the Department of Health to research the issue of black and ethnic minorities in the profession. Before that, in the 1970s and 1980s, she worked as a nurse in the UK and for a short while in Jamaica. She was also a senior lecturer in nursing at the universities of Manchester and Central Lancashire. Recognition for her work includes a CBE, awarded in 2009, and an induction into the 2010 Nursing Times Hall of Fame.
Ms Baxter’s job now involves leading programmes to help embed and enforce fairness and diversity into the 500-plus organisations that make up NHS Employers. The team provides guidance and support, relays the collective views of trusts to the government and shares best practice.
“If you’re to become a model employer that attracts and retains the right people, then equality and human rights have to be important to you,” says Baxter. “We help the NHS understand how equality is good for business.”
Her research proves that having employees from many backgrounds increases the likelihood of a staff member being able to empathise with patients’ situations, which results in providing a better service. A happy workforce with high morale can also provide better care, which increases efficiency.
“Productivity increases when people feel happy and can be themselves,” says Baxter. “It’s not an emotional argument – it’s a business one.”
The Equality Act 2010 outlines how to treat people equally. When Ms Baxter was just starting her nursing career, there was never discourse, let alone legislation, on the hushed topic. She considers this one of her crowning accomplishments.
“Putting equality on the agenda of the NHS is what I am most proud of,” says Baxter. “When I first started, race and sexual orientation were taboo subjects. People just didn’t talk about it. Now, we can sit down and talk about it, even if we don’t agree.
“There is a recognised language around equality. It’s on the agenda, and that is my greatest achievement as a nurse.”