White women may have to deal with the ‘glass ceiling’, BME women have to deal with the ‘concrete ceiling’ – Joan Myers writes how being a black and minority ethnic woman is a double whammy when trying to reach the top in the NHS

It is astonishing that although women make up almost 60 per cent of the worldwide workforce – and there is evidence to support that women outperform men in senior positions around the world – there are still very few women found in executive or CEO positions.

Gender is a key factor in attaining a leadership position in public and private sectors regardless of country or culture. Some of the reasons given for under representation of women in leadership roles include social, legal, cultural, educational and organisational factors.   

However, there are still no solutions being provided to change this. Some argue that this is not generally due to blatant discrimination, but is a consequence of invisible barriers and cultural beliefs surrounding genders and structures that favour men in leadership positions in the workplace.

The racial dilemma

Being a black and minority ethnic and a woman is a double whammy or double jeopardy when it comes to attaining “the snowy white peaks of the NHS.” Like Martin Luther King I have a dream: I long to see the day when women, whether BME or white, are accepted on merit for their skills, competencies and experience.

Many BME women have to jump through more hoops than anyone else just to prove they can do the job. They may have considerably more qualifications and lengthy experience but the doors are often not even opened to let us in.

Viola Davis, the first black woman to win an Emmy award, (as recent as 2015), stated: “The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity.”

‘Many BME women have to jump through more hoops than anyone else just to prove they can do the job’

The NHS is facing massive financial and staffing challenges. If it seriously wants to see change, it needs to be courageous and begin to appoint women, including BME women, to more senior roles – and not just as interims, acting or deputy roles.

There is much talk about inclusive and collective leadership on paper, however not much happens at ground level.

We have been tolerating the status quo for so long that it appears the NHS is like the proverbial frog in a pot of hot water which tries to escape when the pot starts to boil and it is too late to jump out.

Leadership network

One of the barriers to women gaining senior roles, as per this piece in The Harvard Business Review, is the fact that women having a lack of access to networks, influential colleagues and sponsors. Therefore, it’s great that the HSJ Women Leadership Network has been set up.

I felt honoured to be asked to be on the board of HSJ first women network. However, I was intrigued that at the official launch of the women’s network we should choose to debate about whether men should be invited to be members of the network also. I cannot imagine a men’s network even considering inviting women to be a member of their men’s network. 

As a BME woman, it would have been more interesting to hear the debate on whether BME women should be a member of the women’s network or should they have a separate network. I personally believe there should be both as women share some common concerns in the workplace regardless of the hue.

However, I would also welcome a BME women’s network to support BME women to manage the “weathering effects” of being visibly different in the work place. BME women need a space to grow and heal, a safe environment where their colleagues understand their lived experience and can effectively support them through the process.

In this safe environment, in the words of Alice Walker; “we will never have to be other than who we are in order to be successful. We realise that we are as ourselves unlimited and our experiences valid. It is for the rest of the world to recognise this, if they choose.”

White women may have to deal with the “glass ceiling”, BME women have to deal with the “concrete ceiling”. When I see another BME woman who has broken through the almost impenetratable “concrete ceiling” it inspires me and gives me hope that one day things will change and improve in the NHS.

At the recent Chief Nursing Officer’s Black and Minority Ethnic advisory group’s 7th annual conference in Birmingham, Jane Cummings had this to say:  

“We must first strive to understand what prevents us from embedding equity in our systems as equity enables equality, equality enables inclusion and drives behaviour, behavioural changes will unlock the latent potential within our workforce and create a culture and environment in which all can thrive.”

Therefore we need to strive to drive changes so that we can all thrive and survive in the NHS.

Joan Myers is nurse consultant for children and young people at North East London Foundation Trust and chair of Chief Nursing Officer’s Black and Minority Ethnic advisory group.