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The long road to equality

When Eleanor Smith’s daughter Abigail said she wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a nurse, the seasoned public sector campaigner had mixed feelings.

When Eleanor Smith’s daughter Abigail said she wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a nurse, the seasoned public sector campaigner had mixed feelings. Nurse Eleanor Smith (right) hopes her daughter Abigail’s generation will know equality

‘Part of me was happy and proud because I love being a nurse and I still get a buzz from it,’ says the senior theatre nurse. ‘But I took a deep breath because I know what the reality has been, and still is, for black nurses working in the NHS.’

On the positive side for Abigail, who is currently in the second year of a nursing degree course, her mother is well placed to offer her plenty of advice.

A former girl guide who ‘loved first aid and the idea of helping others’, Eleanor launched herself into the nursing career her own mother had sacrificed in order to bring up a family of seven. In 2011, Eleanor became the first black woman president of the trade union Unison.

‘My first piece of advice would be not to stick around in the same place for too long,’ says Eleanor, who has herself worked for Birmingham Women’s NHS Foundation Trust and its predecessor since shortly after qualifying in the early 1980s.

‘Nurses who progress up the career ladder do it by moving themselves on personally and professionally, not by getting too comfortable in one place.

‘Apart from that? Keep going, stick at it and be prepared for the knock backs. As one door closes, another opens.’

Eleanor says the 12-hour shifts are becoming increasingly punishing as she gets older, but she approaches the latter stage of her career with few regrets. ‘Becoming president of Unison was definitely one of the proudest moments in my career. I still get black people from throughout the public sector telling me that to see an ordinary person in such a prominent position gave them a sense of hope.’

She is still an active trade unionist holding posts as Unison branch secretary, a member of its national executive council and member of the TUC general council. She says it angers and saddens her that more than 30 years since she started work in the NHS, little has changed.

‘On the whole, the NHS is still a very old-school organisation. If your face fits, you will be supported and promoted. Lack of opportunity to progress is probably something that affects a lot of nurses but if you are black, it’s three times worse.

‘When I started, there were a lot of black nursing auxiliaries and a few staff nurses but few ward sisters or senior nurses. You only have to look around to see how little that has changed.

‘And as for black or minority ethnic board members or chief executives, I think the numbers speak for themselves.’

One victory Eleanor is pleased to have celebrated in the past five years followed reports that former education secretary Michael Gove wanted the life of Jamaican-born nurse Mary Seacole removed from the school curriculum. After a campaign there was an apparent U-turn.

As an ambassador for the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal, Eleanor is delighted with the fundraising for a permanent tribute in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital in London.

And despite some scepticism, she remains hopeful that the implementation of the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard ( tinyurl.com/nbahu95 ) in April this year will herald a period of change. ‘There are signs equality is moving back on to the agenda and that can’t come soon enough,’ she says.

‘It’s not about people in my age group any more. It’s about people like my daughter who are at the start of their careers and who deserve a better deal.

‘I would like to think that there is a brighter future for them’.

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