“As a black woman you have to work twice as hard to get to where you want to be”

Posted by: Morvia Gooden - Posted on:


Morvia Gooden, former nurse and senior programme lead at the NHS Leadership Academy shares her personal experiences of being a black woman living and working in the NHS.  

My parents came to the UK from Jamaica and brought their rich, beautiful culture to both mine and my siblings’ lives, yet somehow I was always nervous and scared to share this with my white friends. I remember bringing my friends round for after school tea and feeling worried about how they would react to our family tradition of having freshly cooked, big meals with rice and peas, compared to what I imagined they would have for dinner. I have great childhood memories of my culture and heritage and I’m really proud of this, but sadly, I know that being a black woman living and working in the UK, I’m open to more discrimination than my white colleagues.

I began my career at the age of 18. I worked hard, passed all my exams and gained the relevant qualifications to become a nurse. At that time, there were two levels of nursing – a State Enrolled Nurse (SEN) and a State Registered Nurse (SRN). Within this two tier system an SRN was at a higher level than an SEN and I had all the qualifications to be working at the higher level. However after applying to become a nurse, during my interview I was asked if I would prefer to be a SEN nurse, which was the lower level role. Being a naive teenager I didn’t think anything of it, but fortunately for me my mother worked as an auxiliary nurse and advised me not to accept the lower level role. Once I began my career as a SRN, I saw many black nurses working as SENs which was sad to see. My experiences as a nurse continued to show discrimination against black women in the NHS. In 1988 I applied and successfully became a midwife. It was at a time where black midwives were brought in to support and help build up the NHS, however the treatment they received was shockingly poor. I remember one of the white sisters on the ward warning me about what happened to black midwives: “They bring you in as a black midwife to boost their numbers but once you’re in, they will discard you.” Over the coming weeks and months I saw a lot of this taking place as one by one each black midwife was out of a job. In the 21st century you’d hope that individual behaviours would change but yet we’re still working in a health system where:

  • Last year, 75% of acute trusts reported a large number of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff being bullied. According to the NHS Workforce and Race Equality Standard, 41% of BAME colleagues said that they were being bullied, harassed or abused compared to 18% of white staff in similar roles
  • The underrepresentation of BAME colleagues is still continuing. The Snowy White Peaks report highlighted that in London, a city where 40% of workforce and patients are BAME, 17 out of 40 trusts had all white boards

Being a woman in society is a challenge in itself. Have you ever been told that you’re having a ‘blonde moment’? Yet you never hear a man referring to another man with the same language. Black women are subjected to a whole lot more. I was raised with the mantra from my parents that you have to work twice as hard to achieve the same things as your white counterparts and unfortunately I feel this is still the case today. Sadly, in my experience black women are often thought of as being incompetent, lazy and unwilling to work, which isn’t the case at all. It makes me feel as though I’m 10 steps behind everyone else, trying to catch up with something which I’ll never be able to. I feel as though I can’t be accepted for who I am because of the division in society which dictates that white men in power is the norm. Anything other than this doesn’t fit the stereotype and therefore isn’t accepted. If you look at the people at the helm of an organisation you’ll see that a majority, if not all, are white men, while those at the bottom of the hierarchy are from under-represented groups. This didn’t just happen incidentally; it’s human nature to aspire to be in the company of people who are similar to you and something which is commonly referred to as the mini me syndrome. Those working at board level may dispute this, but it’s very much the case in my experience. For example, I’ve been sat at a board meeting and put forward an idea or suggestion to not much response or buy in, but then a few minutes later, a man has presented a similar idea and been applauded and recognised for his efforts. It may not seem much, but over time these micro inequities build up and you start to internalise these subtle forms of oppression. The net result is that you feel smaller and ultimately not valued.

As a system, what are we going to do about inequality? The Academy is working hard to drive compassionate, inclusive leadership throughout the NHS by helping BAME colleagues unleash and develop their talents through our Ready Now and Stepping Up programmes while working towards more sustainable inclusive cultures. But this will take time. It’s too easy to say that people need to be tolerant and understanding; we need people to look at who they are, what’s around them and how they contribute to what’s happening. We need to stand up to injustices that are in front of us, not give into the norm which excludes others and work to change our own mindsets.

My belief is that black people have inherited internalised oppression from 400 years of slavery as we’ve been taught that white people are better than us.

Even though no living white person is responsible for slavery, every BAME person still bears the scars. It’s not a blame game but the wider inequality which is taking place across the NHS is just one of the symptoms. I know that it’s difficult to overcome the barriers put up against me. I try my best to find ways around them by living a fulfilling life outside of work, spending time with my nearest and dearest and embracing my wonderful culture and all it has to offer. I choose not to spend every second of the day fighting because it can be weathering and manifest in different ways, including mental health problems and denial of your own lived experiences. Learning to pick and choose your battles becomes an art in itself.

Personally I refer to living my life as a black woman in the UK as ‘learning to dance between the raindrops.’

36 replies on ““As a black woman you have to work twice as hard to get to where you want to be””

  • Thank you for sharing. I have a similar story.

    Annette Adkins
    • Thanks for your reply Annette , as everyone’s story counts

      morvia gooden
  • Dear Morvia, your comments resonate with me 100%. My career is always one or two steps (which equates to years of progression) behind white colleagues despite being equal if not having greater skills, capability and knowledge. In my experience BaME women have to demonstrate they can do the job and all it entails before being given the opportunity to develop within a role.

    • Hi Diane , thanks for your comment. We have a long way to go to reach an equal footing with our non BME counterparts, onwards and upwards 🙂

      morvia gooden
  • I am sure many BAME members of the NHS will agree with Morvia.
    The past does not difine us it helps us to define the future we want for our children and our grand children

    I have always been a opermist whilst pace of change has been slow never the less we have chsnge . The giants of equlity have lifted up up we now need to aspire for better we need structures process in place to ensure discrimination in outed recognised and eliminated
    I could go on but well done Morvia fir sharing your story your grandchildren will benfit from your trail blazing

    • Thanks Jagtar, I’m certainly endorsing your optimism !

      morvia gooden
  • you have summed it up in a nutshell. I am not a nurse but have had similar experiences. I wanted to train as a nurse but my mother said no, due to the treatment she received whilst working as an auxiliary nurse. I feel that wherever you work in the NHS you face oppression you need very thick skin and a broad back to survive. I agree learning to pick and choose your battles is a learnt strategy for survival.

    • Together our broad backs can survive and THRIVE leaving a wholesome legacy for our children and beyond ! Thanks Angela

      morvia gooden
  • Real and insightful blog. My nursing experience is in mental health ,but sadly there are many similarities . Things are better than 30yrs ago, but still a long way to go.
    Well written, behind you 100%

    Geraldine McMurdie
    • Racial inequality transcends the boundaries of role and organisation, so the similarities of lived experience prevail, AND together we can do this 🙂

      morvia gooden
  • Morvia, you have articulated what so many of us feel! I can only keep learning and strive for equality and positivity. Thank you for bringing visibility to what is often felt but dismissed…we often don’t want to “go there” because ultimately it hurts. However I take strength and learn from powerful, amazing women like you!

    Gita Prasad
  • That’s so powerful Morvia xxx

    • Thanks Tendai you are also an example of inspiration in spite of your lived experiences

      morvia gooden
  • Dear Movia,
    Thank you for sharing this powerful testimony of your personal experiences. Its only through this acknowledgement of knowing what is wrong that we can learn to strive for greater heights. You are a light bearer!

    • Thank you Ralph , I have also learnt to sit within & share my own vulnerability to enable others to shine their own lights

      morvia gooden
  • I empathise with everything you’ve said here and do everything I can to support true equality in work both in terms of protected characteristics and just our human differences in perspective and life experience. Having been brought up since being a “baby nurse” by ward teams mainly comprising nurses from African countries I really value the breadth of experience and culture. It’s shaped who I am now professionally more than anything else.

    The reason I use the word empathise is that I am a white heterosexual man in adult nursing. When on the wards aside from getting all the unsociable shifts going (because I had no childcare responsibilities at the time) my impression was that I had to work twice as hard to prove my worth as a caring professional to management and not someone who was a nurse simply to step into management or some other route.

    To cut what would be a very long post short, the perceived power base in nursing, as I see it, is with white women with men not being really accepted, and especially not white men! It really feels like my colleagues from other ethnicities were more accepted as being caring professionals than my white male peers. We never could explain it. However the true power base is the teams we work in, rich in cultural exchange and mutual respect and appreciation.

    The struggle for lots of groups goes on and I fear the exit from the EU is going to make the struggle harder as we lose both vital staff and lose the cultural values of emboldened equality that the EU brought to our country.

    Richard H
    • Learning to acknowledge and appreciate difference is vital in progressing racial equality to enable us to be united by our ideals rather than being divided by our differences

      morvia gooden
  • Thank you for sharing. This made me cry and sad. I look forward to attending the Ready Now Programme and to supporting all staff especially BME staff to meet their true potential.

    Dionne Daniel
    • experiences such as mine are commonplace for BME staff in whatever sector they find themselves . our strength lies in not so much what happens but how we deal with what happens

      morvia gooden
  • It’s comforting to know that its not just me that feels and sees stuff this way. Sometimes you’re made to feel like you’re making things up in your head, glad to know I’m not. Thank you for sharing.
    Lets keep hoping and praying for change to come

  • Dear Morvia,
    Your story resonates strongly with mine and I could’t agree more with your outlook. I try to face the my imposed challenges positively because there is no alternative. I work ‘thrice’ as hard to achieve my ambitions, because that’s who I am. But I also know that the harder I work the greater the barriers are for me not to succeed.

    • With a united approach we can work to change that reality

      morvia gooden
  • I agree with most of the post above. I always remind myself that we blacks are thick- skinned. My heart grieves for my children who are oblivious to these treatments and will soon grow to realise it. I pray they will have different experience to mine.

    Paulina Tetteh
    • I pitch all my hopes on the future generations for humanity’s sake

      morvia gooden
  • thank you for this information .

    ingrid Madzikanda
  • Dear Ms Gooden
    Thank you. Thank you! Love your article! 22 years ago I started to work my way up from a part-time member of staff in administration in the NHS. I have since been an Office Manager in various posts, became the first black PA in an affluent Trust. I have experienced discrimination, stress and unfair treatment. All I ever wanted was to progress and do the best in my job and to be as an example to my son and to others. Thank goodness my strength has been given to my son. I am currently in a post which I hoped I could make a difference, but now I am currently at home with “Stress at Work” and looking for another job. I hope to find another job as a PA and to have left footprint for better!

    Lola Ncara
  • thank you

  • Thank you for sharing your story. As a child of black Caribbean migrants your story resonated strongly with me. Your experience shows that success is possible, but that there are so many extra unnecessary obstacles to overcome. It is important to keep acknowledging these issues to help to motivate changing the culture from everyone.
    Please keep up the good work. It is extremely important because behind every statistic documenting the adverse experience of black women and men there follows increased stress affecting home life and health. Thank you!

  • As a mixed race nurse with over 38 years of service in Scotland I can say twice recently I have not been successful at gaining a managerial role. These posts have gone to White Scottish candidates who have been much less qualified. I have not seen in my career in Scotland one black or Asian female in a senior role. I had thought that to be successful as a black nurse that I needed to make sure not only was I well qualified but better qualified than other candidates . I have reached the conclusion in Scotland having just being interviewed for a managers role that I was unsuccessful for again that this will never happen in my career.The post went to someone with 4 years post reg experience at degree level )as opposed to my 38 years experience with team leader experience and a Masters degree and I am CPT. I have made appointment to discuss what appears to be institutional racism in Scotland with HR . I do not know how we challenge or address this problem? However I am at the stage in my career when it will do me no harm to ask why as i not going to get a managers job it seems. I love your positivity but the reality that really very talented black and Asian nurses are being passed over all of the time for roles that they deserve I would love to know what others think? RGN , RSCN, RM, BA HV, Masters Public Health , CPT ,Dip Counselling Skills

  • Thank you for a truly inspiring article.
    I have worked as a registered mental health nurse for nearly 39 years. I am currently receiving support after experiencing harassment and bullying based on racism. The experience nearly broke me emotionally but I have managed to find some strength to expose the perpetrator and file a grievance. I am trying to not allow this cloud what has been a fulfilling career.

    Angela Rodney
  • Thank you for writing a really fantastic blog which resonates closely with the personal experiences I have had. I recall being told at an early age that you have to work twice as hard as anyone who was white because of the colour of my skin, and the experiences of being a nurse and progress in our careers are very true and profoundly accurate.

    Sheila Sobrany
  • Not seen you since you were in Ipswich Morvia..You’ve done brilliantly Morvia! Thank you for sharing.

    Belinda Holder

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