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Are opportunities still limited for black and minority ethnic staff in health care leadership?


I was recently asked to chair a round-table event for the Health Service Journal on ethnic diversity and equality in health care leadership.

Out of interest I researched the origin of the term ‘round-table’ and discovered that it came from a speech made by HRH Prince Edward, Prince of Wales, to the British Industries Fair in 1927. He urged ‘young business and professional men… to get together round the table and adopt methods that have proved sound in the past, adapt them to changing needs and wherever possible, improve them’. Setting aside the gender focus of the original use, I would like to reflect on issues that were discussed at this particular round-table event in 2016 – namely what leaders in the NHS can adopt, adapt and improve to enable black and minority ethnic (BME) staff to achieve their potential as leaders.

Participants began by sharing their personal emotional response to the topic, an important recognition of the often painful experiences of being treated differently based on ethnicity. An exploration of the existing barriers to progression for black and minority ethnic staff touched on both unconscious bias and conscious bias; there was a recognition that failure to tackle this was in itself a barrier and that talking about the conscious bias that exists in the system is a significant step towards addressing inequality.

One of the known, visible aspects of conscious bias is in the processes and practices used to recruit, develop and retain talent. Recruitment in particular has been spoken about widely by Roger Kline, who most recently pointed out the lack of ethnic minority specialists operating in the executive search agencies who work with the NHS.

There is a lot to learn from the huge progress made at the United Nations on tackling gender inequality. Through setting cultural expectations and mandating the use of a system-wide action plan, the UN were able to bring about a change to global culture. Male shortlists are a thing of the past, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s personal commitment to gender equality led to the appointment of 150 women to Assistant Secretary-General or Under-Secretary-General roles over nine years – and to nearly a quarter of UN missions being headed by women, compared to none when he took office.

We explored the issue of intersectionality – the theory of how different types of discrimination interact – raising a discussion about how practical action could be taken to increase BME representation at senior levels of the system. One simple and effective example was given from an acute health provider where the leadership team has invested in development workshops and masterclasses designed by BME leaders; decisions about what should be offered were made in a series of conversations held over a period of one month, often over lunch. Opportunities were offered in a number of areas such as interview practice, help with communication skills and coaching conversations. The short events were attended by staff from all parts of the organisation and at all levels. Repeated over a three-month cycle, these interventions combined to create a culture in which BME leaders had improved confidence and felt valued; an impact assessment is currently under way but anecdotally the organisation reports a threefold increase in applicants for internal vacancies at supervisory and middle management level. Increasing the talent pool in this way will potentially lead to this group being developed and supported to apply for roles at the higher levels. The crucial ingredient was senior leaders acting to promote the development and talent of BME staff in their workforce.

Black and minority ethnic staff make up a disproportionately large part of both the workforce and the patient population of today’s NHS, compared with their proportion in senior leadership roles. We accept a number of factors in modern motivation theory as being critical to the wellbeing and confidence of all people yet five of these factors (possibility of growth, opportunity to do something meaningful, a high level of responsibility, sense of importance to the organisation, recognition for achievements) are consistently being ignored in relation to our BME workforce. Achieving the recent requirements set out in the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard may force compliance, but as the round-table conversation demonstrated, much more is possible with proactive change.

We can no longer accept the status quo. Within any power system there is always a moment when the act of people uniting to disrupt things that are simply wrong provides the resistance that moves towards righting that wrong. I’d like to think that participating in the round-table event was a small part of such an act.