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

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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.’

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