Career advice

Out and on the way up

Helen Lushpenko-Brown decided to find out how colleagues’ career trajectories were affected by being open about their sexuality, just as she had been.

Helen Lushpenko-Brown decided to find out how colleagues’ career trajectories were affected by being open about their sexuality, just as she had been

As a lesbian nurse, I have been exhausted for most of my career by thinking through my actions and words constantly before answering questions about my private life.

I was afraid of making my sexual orientation known because of concerns about how I would be judged. This took huge effort and energy and often distracted me from my work.

On reflection, it has become apparent that my advancement in nursing began only when I became open about my sexual orientation.

The UK health and social care sector employs around 2.6 million people. The government estimates that 6 per cent of the population is lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) – this is around 156,000 people in the health and social care workforce.

What research there is on LGB people in health care has focused on the experiences of patients, with very little data about nurses and their careers. I decided to pursue my own enquiries.

My research aimed to gain an insight into the experiences of gay and lesbian nurses working in the NHS and to explore their perceptions of how this has affected their career.

NHS careers

What research there is on LGB people in health care has focused on the experiences of patients, with very little data about nurses and their careers. I decided to pursue my own enquiries.

My research aimed to gain an insight into the experiences of gay and lesbian nurses working in the NHS and to explore their perceptions of how this has affected their career. I wanted to:

  • Examine how sexual orientation affects advancement/leadership as a nurse in the NHS.
  • Analyse perceptions of being a lesbian or gay nurse.
  • Explore narratives of work, career and sexuality.
  • Discover how national policy has affected career advancement of lesbian or gay nurses in the NHS.

Five participants – two lesbian and three gay nurses at bands 6-8a in one NHS trust – were interviewed using semi-structured interviews. I asked them about experiences and management of workplace homophobia; openness about their sexuality at work; experiences of coming out; workplace support and understanding; opportunities for career progression; and the effect of the Equality Act.

The interview analysis highlighted three themes: stigma, homophobia and career development.

All five participants spoke about coming out to managers, colleagues and patients, why they chose to come out or not, and the critical role this played in their ability to build successful relationships.

Before coming out, they worried about how preconceptions of homosexuality would affect the way they were viewed professionally. All five participants told their stories of coming out in the workplace with visible emotion because of the positive effect this had on work and home life.

Discrimination was a tangible and sober theme that permeated each interview. Participants often said attitudes to homosexuality had improved and discrimination was no longer an issue, yet this statement was often followed by an example of homophobia.

A lack of role models was a recurring theme, but once participants had come out this improved their ability to build successful relationships.

The research highlighted that progress is being made, but that sexual orientation can affect career progression in a negative way when not acknowledged. Successful role models make a broader point to colleagues about the value and importance of being open about our differences.

If a highly skilled, diverse workforce gives excellent care in a welcoming, tolerant and positive environment, this can only help the NHS serve our diverse communities.

Find out more

Helen Lushpenko-Brown is a trainee advanced nurse practitioner at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust.

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