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Racism and inequality in the NHS


MY PARENTS came to the UK from Jamaica and brought their rich, beautiful culture to our family’s lives. I have great childhood memories of my culture and heritage and I’m proud of it – but sadly, I know that being a black woman living and working in the UK, I’m open to more discrimination than my white colleagues.

I began my career at the age of 18, in 1982. I worked hard, passed all my exams and gained the relevant qualifications to become a nurse.

At that time, there were two levels of nursing – a State Enrolled Nurse (SEN) and a State Registered Nurse (SRN). Within this two-tier system, an SRN was at a higher level than an SEN, and I had all the qualifications to be working at the higher level.

After applying to become a nurse, during my interview I was asked if I would prefer to be a SEN nurse, which was the lower-level role. Being a naive teenager I didn’t think anything of it, but fortunately for me, my mother worked as an auxiliary nurse and advised me not to accept the lower-level role.

Once I began my career as a SRN, I saw many black nurses working as SENs, which was sad to see. My experiences as a nurse continued to show discrimination against black women in the NHS.

In 1988, I applied and successfully became a midwife. It was at a time where black midwives were brought in to support and help build up the NHS, however, the treatment they received was shockingly poor. I remember one of the white sisters on the ward warning me about what happened to black midwives:

“They bring you in as a black midwife to boost their numbers, but once you’re in, they will discard you.”

Over the coming weeks and months, I saw a lot of this taking place as one by one, each black midwife was out of a job.

In the 21st century, you would hope that individual behaviours would change.

I was raised with the mantra from my parents that you have to work twice as hard to achieve the same things as your white counterparts and unfortunately, I feel this is still the case today. Sadly, in my experience, black women are often thought of as being incompetent, lazy and unwilling to work, which isn’t the case at all.

It makes me feel as though I’m 10 steps behind everyone else, trying to catch up with something which I’ll never be able to. I feel as though I can’t be accepted for who I am because of the division in society which dictates that white men being in power is the norm. Anything other than this doesn’t fit the stereotype, and therefore isn’t accepted. Those working at board level may dispute this, but it’s very much the case in my experience.

As a system, what are we going to do about inequality?

The NHS Leadership Academy is working hard to drive compassionate, inclusive leadership throughout the NHS by helping black and minority ethnic (BAME) colleagues unleash and develop their talents through our Ready Now and Stepping Up programmes, while working towards more sustainable inclusive cultures.

We need to stand up to injustices that are in front of us, not give into the norm, which excludes others, and work to change our own mindsets.

Morvia Gooden is a former nurse/midwife and is senior programme lead at the NHS Leadership Academy.

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