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Alastair McLellan: Tackling discrimination of LGBT staff will benefit the entire NHS

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Many NHS organisations can feel proud in making lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans healthcare leaders and staff welcome but in many other places this is not the case. We hope the first HSJ LGBT Role Models will help

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Of all the types of discrimination blighting healthcare leadership and the NHS as a whole, it is bias based on sexuality that gets the least attention.

The lack of representation of women and, especially, people from a black and minority ethnic background among the leadership of the service is, rightly, attracting increasing attention.

‘Discrimination faced by LGBT healthcare leaders and staff is subject of little debate’

We hope Health Service Journal, through its Inspirational Women and BME Pioneers projects, is playing its part in the push to right this wrong. A push that appears to be gaining some, albeit limited, momentum.

In contrast, the discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans healthcare leaders and staff is the subject of very little debate.

An HSJ first

That could be because of the assumption the NHS is a workplace in which LGBT people feel comfortable or that - due to the fact sexuality is not “obvious” in the way gender or race is - discrimination will be less prevalent.

Many NHS organisations can feel proud of their record in making LGBT people feel welcome. Nottinghamshire Healthcare Trust, for example, was placed second in Stonewall’s latest annual list of “gay friendly” workplaces.

‘The pressure to keep secrets can only add to the stress of often already high pressure roles’

But in many parts of the country, especially away from the big towns and cities, the picture is grimmer.

As for the idea that people’s sexuality can remain hidden at work - the pressure to keep secrets can only add to the stress of often already high pressure roles.

This week we reveal HSJ’s first celebration of LGBT Role Models.

Potential antagonism

When we launched the project in conjunction with the NHS Leadership Academy, a senior figure in local government got in touch saying he wanted to “nominate three NHS chief executives”. However, he added, “sadly not one of them felt they could be nominated”.

We also received a message from Dame Julie Moore, chief executive of University Hospitals Birmingham Foundation Trust.

Dame Julie wrote how she had “got to a point in my career where I was not going to pretend or evade anymore”. Stressing: “I think it is really important for me to be visible to show that it is possible to be a chief exec and gay.”

‘It’s important to be visible to show it’s possible to be a chief exec and gay’

However, she added: “I recently gave a talk to an LGBT group in the Midlands and as part of this wanted to identify other senior NHS people who are open about being LGBT. No one in a senior role readily came to mind, implying there are none or they are not out.”

If it is this bad for senior executives, imagine how tough it is for staff further down the organisational hierarchy.

Indeed, one of the people we wanted to include among our LGBT role models reluctantly had to withdraw citing the potential antagonism of local politicians and some NHS staff who were part of the “strong culturally conservative society” predominating in that part of the country.

Understanding and openness

The survey we conducted to accompany our LBGT Role Models project highlights that the NHS in general has a relatively good record when it comes to employment issues related to sexuality.

However, as so often, where the service appears to let itself down is when something goes wrong. Only half those who had experienced discrimination reported it and 50 per cent of those who felt their employer had not dealt with their concerns seriously.

We hope the HSJ LGBT Role Models will provide some inspiration and reassurance to those in the service experiencing discrimination or struggling with the incredibly personal and difficult decision about whether to be “out” at work.

It seems appropriate to leave the last word to Dame Julie, who adds that tackling discrimination over sexuality “can only help promote understanding and openness, thereby allowing staff to be comfortable in themselves at work, and in the long run this will benefit our patients”.

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