Dame Elizabeth Anionwu: Time for white managers to tackle discrimination


Dame Elizabeth Anionwu: Time for white managers to tackle discrimination

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Black and minority ethnic (BME) nurses trying to make a career for themselves should not be expected to cope with a racist system

The onus must not be on the individual BME nurse to constantly challenge the
system or suffer in silence. Picture: iStock

At the end of last year I received a letter informing me that I was to be made a Dame for services to nursing and the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal in the 2017 New Year’s Honours list. It came as a great shock to me. To be honest, it still hasn’t quite sunk in.

In my early career there was a dearth of black nursing role models, and certainly none were being honoured in this way. In 2008 I recall being over the moon on hearing that Donna Kinnair (now head of nursing at the RCN) had become a Dame for services to nursing in London.

I hope 2017 turns out to be a great year for all nurses, particularly those from marginalised backgrounds who have recently qualified. They have managed to overcome barriers to become nurses and they deserve to be congratulated. 

Obstacles to nursing 

My early difficulties were due to being born illegitimate and mixed-race, spending the first nine years of life in care, and then experiencing physical abuse at the hands of my stepfather. Becoming a nurse was my childhood dream: deciding to make that dream a reality turned out to be the best decision I ever made, despite encounters with racism that almost scuppered my nursing career before it began. 

In the early 1960s, I applied to four London teaching hospitals to train as a nurse. I was astounded to get absolutely no response. I was well qualified and proud of my seven ‘O’ levels – but applicants were also required to supply a photograph. I was also asked to give my father’s name and occupation, which I was unable to do; I didn’t know my Nigerian father until several years later, when I was in my mid-twenties. Fortunately, my application to Paddington General Hospital was accepted.

Later, having passed my health visiting exams, I initially failed my practice placement for daring to question the illogical manner in which patients’ ethnicity data were being collected. I was told I did not have the ‘correct attitude’ to join the profession. I qualified after appealing against this decision.  

Bigger picture

My hope is that in 2017, newly-qualified, competent and compassionate BME nurses will have a more positive and happier career pathway. Unfortunately, evidence shows that BME nurses still have a worse experience in the NHS than their white colleagues, and are less likely to reach senior positions.  

The onus must not be on the individual BME nurse to constantly challenge the system or suffer in silence. It is time that more white nurse managers step up to the plate.

They need to accept that inequalities have to be addressed without feeling that they are being personally attacked when these uncomfortable issues are raised. See the bigger picture. Focus on treating staff equitably and improving their morale as well as patient care. Take time to listen to individual grievances and consider the necessary action that is required. Understand why there is so much discontent among BME nurses in the NHS.

Read statistics 

They should reflect on the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) statistics for their NHS trust and whether they are acceptable, and have the confidence to put pressure on their organisation to make this a high-profile matter. One excellent source of support is Yvonne Coghill, director of workforce race equality standard implementation at NHS England and a regular contributor to Nursing Standard. 

I would also urge managers to talk to colleagues in organisations that have been publicly acknowledged for their achievements in creating equal opportunities for BME staff. There are plenty of case studies that show how it is done – let’s learn from them and make real progress. 

About the author




Dame Elizabeth Anionwu is emeritus professor of nursing, University of West London.

Her autobiography, Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union, is available on Amazon in paperback and e-book. 

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