Tackling race inequality with progress but much more to do

Black History Month, which takes place every October, is a time to reflect on and celebrate the contributions people of African and Caribbean descent have made to this country. But it’s also a chance to think about the inequalities that exist for people from these and other Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. 

This year, Black History Month has felt especially poignant, coming after the killing of George Floyd in the US sent shockwaves around the world and woke many to the persistence of unacceptable levels of inequality. We’ve also seen the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic which, as we know from a Public Health England report, has disproportionally affected people from all BAME backgrounds.

These very sad developments have put racism and inequality in the spotlight which allows some welcome focus on recognising what’s wrong and trying to find the means for improvement. But even when the news cycle moves on, it’s important that organisations like ours keep up the momentum to achieve real and lasting change.

Race and the NHS

The NHS has begun to address the issue of race inequality more systematically in recent years. The NHS workforce race equality standard (WRES) was introduced in 2016 to help ensure employees from BAME backgrounds have equal access to career opportunities and receive fair treatment in the workplace. NHS commissioners and healthcare providers are expected to show progress against a number of indicators of workforce equality, such as the number of BAME board members and the proportion of BAME staff formally disciplined compared with their white colleagues. 

Launched this year and spearheaded by Yvonne Coghill, the London workforce race strategy aims to make a significant and tangible difference to the experiences of BAME NHS staff in the capital, recognising the fact that over 44 per cent of London NHS staff are from BAME backgrounds. 

What we are doing to address race equality

At our Trust, more than half of our employees come from BAME backgrounds, a higher proportion than for the London population as a whole. That makes it even more important that we actively help lead the way in making sure our staff are not subject to discrimination or prejudice and know that their career opportunities and experiences at work are not predetermined by ethnicity, nationality or colour. 

We formally and explicitly prioritised ‘race’ in our equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) action plan, launched in 2019. This triggered a dialogue at all levels of our organisation, including our board, about why race is our most challenging equality issue. For me, it’s a basic issue of fairness – it’s simply not acceptable that our BAME staff can expect to be have less opportunity to progress and be rewarded than white colleagues. The scale and complexity of the change required – together with the growing number of BAME staff who are making the significant step to share their experiences and expectations – also highlights why we have to act decisively.

We have supported three staff – Joselyn King, Sinead O’Neill and Kevin Croft – to become WRES experts, helping us perform better against all WRES indicators – and one of our ward managers, Nonhlanhla Nyathi, to become a ‘WRES frontline’, working closely with colleagues to help make sure their voices are represented. Earlier this year, our multidisciplinary BAME staff network joined our BAME nursing and midwifery group in providing an independent forum for BAME staff across all disciplines.

Having joined the Trust in 2019 as workforce equality, diversity and inclusion lead, Olayinka Iwu is now heading an expanding equality, diversity and inclusion team, ensuring we are harnessing the diversity of our workforce at all levels and supporting the development of a diverse and innovative culture.

In response to inequalities further exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re just establishing a programme to recruit and train ‘BAME ambassadors’ from among our staff to help link up our BAME workforce, BAME networks and EDI committee.

Measured against the WRES indicators, we have seen considerable improvement in a number of areas. For example, latest figures show that BAME staff are now slightly less likely to be subject to formal disciplinary action than their white colleagues; in 2019, they were 1.51 times more likely to be disciplined. During that time, we have completely overhauled our disciplinary processes, drawing on learning from the independent inquiry we commissioned about our dismissal of Charing Cross nurse Amin Abdullah in 2015.  

A number of other key developments, such as reviewing our end-to-end recruitment process and the use of standardised recruitment packs, have helped us to reduce the disproportionate likelihood of white applicants being appointed from shortlisting compared with applicants from BAME backgrounds. However, the WRES data also shows that there’s still much work to be done in terms of ensuring that applicants from BAME groups stand the same chance as those from white backgrounds of being shortlisted for recruitment and, once they join the Trust, that BAME people have the same opportunities to progress. 

You can read the full analysis and data for the WRES report in our latest workplace equality, diversity and inclusion annual report

While it’s important to recognise the progress we are making, we must not lose sight of how much further there is to go. Improving our processes and systems is important, but it’s also very much about awareness and understanding and how we must all take the time to engage and to recognise what can often be unconscious bias or privilege. Our focus on transforming our organisational culture is key to achieving and maintaining the shift in thinking and behaviours that we need. I recommend the short film on BAME staff experiences during the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic, produced as part of the recent ‘thank you week’, as an example of how powerful – if not a little uncomfortable – it can be to simply listen to frank and honest feedback .  

We will continue to develop opportunities for staff to engage on equality, diversity and inclusion, including through our reverse mentoring programme, which is giving our senior leaders more exposure to the insights of BAME staff with different lived experiences. 

I am very proud of our diversity at Imperial College Healthcare – it is a huge strength. We have to ensure that everyone has an equal chance to succeed so that we can harness that potential for everyone’s benefit. I have made a commitment to achieve real and meaningful progress in challenging inequality and prejudice – both through formal means, such as chairing our equality, diversity and inclusion committee, and through my own personal development and learning. I would like this to be a commitment shared by everyone in our organisation, whatever their background.