Where are all the leaders like me?

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4 minute read.

Anthony Nichols, Head of Inclusion for the North West Region of NHS England and the Chair of the NHS England LGBT+ Staff Network, challenges us all to be more aware and be ready to take action this LGBTQ+ History month.

As a gay man and a leader in the system, Anthony, coaches and mentors other gay people and often hears, “I don’t see people like me, further up in the organisation”. Anthony’s passion to raise the profile and visible leadership of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, plus (LGBT+) colleagues doesn’t just derive from his experiences, but from the national context.

National statistics tell us that around 3-5% of the population identifies as lesbian, gay or bisexual and a further 0.1-2% identify as transgender. Anthony explains, “if we estimate that’s a 5% overall, then with a 1.2 million whole time equivalent workforce in the NHS, that means there are up to 60,000 LGBTQ+ colleagues in the NHS.” He continued, “while we are aware that our Employee Record System (ESR) has some limitations with either not collecting or not declaring. I ask, ‘could some of those 60,000 colleagues be in senior positions like me?’” His thinking is related to delivering an NHS that is fit for the future, clarifying that to meet the needs of many we need diversity at all levels in the NHS and “this includes having visible LGBT+ leaders like myself being ‘out and visible’”.

Not content with wondering why there are not more visible LGBT+ leaders Anthony decided to face this challenge by inviting a cohort of people in the organisation who were ‘out’ to him, but not necessarily out to others to join a webinar he hosted on ‘LGBT+ Visibility & Leadership’. To ensure it was a psychologically safe place Anthony decided to use a digital tool (Menti) to capture anonymised feedback. He asked several questions to help capture key themes and found that three quarters of the participants answered “yes” to the question, “If you have LGBT+ lived experience are you out to colleagues and/or the wider organisation?” That is generally positive, but what was stopping those who were not able to be out. The responses ranged from ‘not feeling safe’ to experiencing microaggressions, bad attitudes and worryingly discrimination.

Exploring what could be done to support colleagues to be their ‘true selves’ as leaders in the system he explored what may help LGBT+ colleagues feel safer and the benefits visible LGBT+ leadership. The themes that would help improve colleagues to being ‘out and proud’ with colleagues was to see more transparent and positive LGBT+ representation. To ensure colleagues feel safe, all leaders need to be ready to quickly respond to reported homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, including knowing the point of contacts for support, including staff networks. Some of the participants noted the importance of investment in dealing with discrimination quickly and improving awareness of intersectionality to deliver inclusion. Anthony explained that there was a clear agreement that having a seat at the table with, or as, senior leaders helps to champion and amplify the visibility of LGBT+ leaders and that this role modelling may lead other LGBT+ colleagues to grow in confidence, to know they are valued contributors who will be accepted and encouraged to grow and succeed.

Anthony’s tenacity to raise the visible profile of LGBT+ leaders did not stop with that webinar, “In the North West, I am developing a proposal to launch a strategic LGBT+ Assembly to parallel our Black and Minority Ethnic Assembly which will create a safe space for LGBT+ leaders to share learning across the North West. With an aim to develop systems that feel safer and stronger together”.

When asked what others can do, Anthony was quick to share his thoughts about actions individual leaders and organisations can take:

  • If you are a leader, use your influence to raise the profile of LGBT+ leaders or have them ‘invited to the table’ to share their lived experience.
  • Respond proactively to homophobia or transphobia or biphobia, holding others to account to do the same.
  • Consider clear reporting points and processes to raise confidence in this community that they are being heard and are valued colleagues.
  • Develop a robust framework for your staff networks to sit within, to be consulted on decisions, to be heard and to make sure you invest in these networks. 
  • Endorse an embedded programme of microaggression and bias awareness for all staff.
  • Feed this learning into your business planning, especially retention, recruitment, and talent management.

When asked about one piece of advice or feedback he would give to himself when starting his own leadership journey, Anthony smiled and said that one of the participants in his webinar stated it clearly: “You cannot be what you cannot see!” He will continue to encourage his network of LGBT+ colleagues to be seen, be heard, and be counted, so others may confidently and safely follow.

Anthony challenges us with “during times of change or continuous improvement what opportunities are there to ensure LGBT+ representation at senior levels? How can we be ambitious to build a pipeline of LGBT+ and other talent from protected communities to enhance the visibility of diverse leadership?”

Click here to find out more about the NHS England LGBT+ Network

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