Black doctors and nurses are paid far less than their white colleagues. The NHS must address the barriers and prejudices in its system
Some years ago a fellow black nurse said to me that I had been described by a nursing leader as “the only acceptable black nurse”. I’d like to say we’ve come a long way since then, but the enormous ethnic pay gap in the NHS shows there’s a long road yet to travel. As revealed last week, black doctors and nurses are on average paid thousands of pounds less than their white colleagues. There are still those who divide our workforce between “acceptable” and “unacceptable”.
I’ve spent a lifetime on the NHS frontline, and overcame these barriers and prejudices to reach the top of my profession. But I’ve never known why I was the lucky one, while others I worked with couldn’t advance.
Nurses and midwives form the largest professional group in the NHS. A quarter of us are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, yet just 7% of us have become directors of nursing or hold senior positions.
It should be obvious that having NHS staff who represent the population they care for can only benefit patients. So why are there so few senior black and minority ethnic staff across the NHS?
Over recent years NHS England, through its Workforce Race Equality Standard, has lifted the lid on racism in the NHS. The findings are not encouraging. Black and minority ethnic staff are more likely to experience bullying, harassment and discrimination from their colleagues and managers than their white colleagues. On top of this they have less chance of being shortlisted, or accessing career development training, and are more likely to be formally disciplined.
This can’t go on. As the largest employer in Britain and one of the biggest in the world, the NHS must redouble efforts to achieve the equality and fairness it strives for, both for patients and those who care for them. Ensuring diversity on interview boards, and building understanding that different voices and different backgrounds are needed at a senior level, can go some way to creating a level playing field.
I have a deep-seated personal and professional commitment to improve the value of black and minority ethnic staff and support their progression. Throughout my career, every initiative to address this has failed. It is demoralising when you work as hard as, or harder than, most of your colleagues and your value in pay is less than others. I cannot tell you how many times this has happened to me and when you seek to address it, the message is you should be grateful we gave you a chance. This has to stop.
At the Royal College of Nursing, we are promoting equality and inclusion for all NHS staff through a programme that tackles workplace discrimination and the over-representation of black and minority ethnic staff in disciplinary cases.
It’s also important that current black and minority ethnic senior staff are seen as role models for the next generation of nursing students, and to encourage schoolchildren to see the NHS as a future career.
Equality is a problem for everyone in the health service. When there is racial inequality in the workplace, patient care suffers – and that is not acceptable.
• Donna Kinnair is acting chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing
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