Human resources

What really annoys me - apart from mission statements, income tax and politicians - are those self-conscious announcements in job advertisements about equal opportunities. Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn.

Although the concept of at least sexual equality was hardly original even in 1948, many of those involved believed that NHS employment practices should become the model for the rest of Britain's employers to follow. The principle of equal pay for men and women doing the same job was well understood and accepted as a desirable objective, even if it took some time to achieve. It is now almost impossible to believe that the pay scale for, say, clerical officers in 1950 was 135 to 385 a year for men, but only 108 to 308 a year for women.

A colleague once told me that when she married in the 1940s, she was sacked by the firm she worked for. At the time, neither she nor anyone else apparently thought that terminating employment on marriage was an odd thing to do.

How times have changed. Not only does the NHS have a culture of equal opportunities but the entire nation has for years been subject to laws imposing penalties on any employer who discriminates on the grounds of gender, race or religion.

Even 30 years ago, when I joined the NHS, I took it as read that everyone had an equal chance at promotion and training. I didn't even know that the NHS had once paid women lower salaries than men. And if all the senior managers known to me were men, well the obvious explanation for that was simply that every young woman who became pregnant seemed, without any pressure whatsoever, to choose to end her career and leave work for the foreseeable future.

Of course, not every young woman got pregnant and those who avoided motherhood did get promotion on, as far as I could see, exactly the same terms as young men. The reason, I surmised, that men alone occupied the most senior posts was obvious: those men had single-mindedly pursued promotion over the course of many years, hauling themselves from interview to interview and moving home and family until they had reached the dizzy heights of senior management. Many had spent years studying for professional qualifications, often in their own time and at their own expense.

In my early career, I never met any woman (though no doubt they existed) who had been willing to run this kind of professional gauntlet, to make the sacrifices necessary to climb a career ladder which required such a degree of obsessive behaviour to succeed. But had such women existed, I never felt the slightest doubt that they would have been as successful as any man.

The fact is that, with certain dishonourable exceptions, the NHS has always been a good employer and has practised equal opportunities for most of its 50 years. So why today do so many job adverts in HSJ carry legends implying that equal ops is a wonderful new initiative? And worse, why do some ads suggest that equal ops may not exist?

If the NHS really is an equal opportunities employer, then telling job applicants is quite unnecessary. Is there really any need for Queen Mary's trust, Chelsea and Westminster trust or the NHS Executive to publicly declare that each is 'an equal opportunities employer'?

And what are we to make of Southern Derbyshire Mental Health trust, which only 'aims' to be an equal opportunities employer, or Bromley Hospitals trust and East Surrey health authority, which are merely 'working towards' equal opportunities? Are we to take it that despite decades of good intent and legislation, these bodies actually do not offer total equality of opportunity? Might this public admission of apparent failure even leave those bodies open to legal action by unsuccessful job applicants?

And is 'working towards' equal ops better or worse than being 'committed' to them, as East Berkshire Community Health trust and Addenbrooke's trust in Cambridge claim to be? Surprisingly even the NHS Executive does not seem quite sure of exactly where it stands. Although one of its job ads confidently announces that it is indeed an equal opportunities employer, another more cautiously tells readers that it is only 'working towards' them.

And what of those who say nothing? Are Allington trust or Barnet health authority - which make no mention of equal opportunities in their adverts - ageist, sexist, racist dinosaurs, or is the creed of equal opportunities so ingrained that they no longer feel it necessary to make the point?

I'd like to think the latter - but I'd like even more to be certain.

If any parts of the NHS are not by now genuine equal opportunities employers, surely it's time they were given a month's notice to become so - failing which some new employment opportunities should be created.

And if the NHS already meets the expectations of its founders and offers universal equal opportunities, then let's get rid of all these silly, fashionable, pointlessly pious legends from job advertisements.