Equality campaigns in health and social care have often overlooked the issue of sexuality and it is time that this changed, says Blair McPherson

Those working for equality and diversity in health and social care need to focus on sexuality. Not because we have got it sorted with the other strands of equality but because we have left this issue until last.

Many people find sexuality a difficult and uncomfortable topic, not least because one's sexuality is such a private matter, but also due to the perceptions and attitudes of the society we live in.

Generally speaking, health and social care organisations are not considered gay-friendly employers and many gay staff do not feel comfortable or even safe disclosing their sexuality at work.

They may feel unable to talk about what they did at the weekend or mention their partner in the workplace for fear of giving the game away. They may hesitate to challenge negative stereotypes, inappropriate remarks or homophobic attitudes.

Keeping track

From our work on addressing issues of race, gender and disability, we know we need to monitor the situation to show we are not discriminating against people due to their sexuality.

To do this, we would need to persuade candidates to declare their sexuality when applying for posts and also persuade patients and service users to declare their sexuality when being referred for services.

As some people would be suspicious of our motives in collecting this information, we would have to assure them it would not be shown to recruitment panels but collated separately by human resources in the same way some organisations collate information on race and faith.

The aim should be to create the type of organisation where people can trust us with this type of information. This will require clear messages from the top of the organisation stating that we value and support gay, lesbian bisexual and transgender staff.

Support system

These staff members may feel isolated in their team or office and might welcome the opportunity to join a workplace support group. Organisations can create specialist posts to deal with issues of harassment and homophobic bullying by offering a confidential support service.

As in issues of race, gender and disability, the challenge is to change the culture of organisations to increase awareness and sensitivity and so reduce the risk of unintended or institutional discrimination.

This will require creating the time and space for staff to explore the issues and examine their own attitudes and values in a safe environment, one where they do not feel inhibited to say what they are thinking.

We will know we have made progress when overt discrimination and prejudice is considered as unacceptable as racism is and when people express concern about the under-representation of gay people at a senior management level. We will know we have succeeded when all staff feel they are treated fairly, valued for who they are and for what they bring to the workplace.