Ruth May pledges to tackle ‘unacceptable’ race inequalities

Dr Ruth May told delegates at the CNO summit in Birmingham yesterday that the underrepresentation of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) nurses in top jobs was “unacceptable”.

“That is unacceptable for us as employers but as importantly it’s not good for our patients”

Ruth May

She said: “The NHS including from a nursing perspective is still an organisation in which inequalities are far too common.” 

While noting recent improvements in this area due to the efforts of the Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) team, Dr May highlighted that despite one in five staff members being BAME, just over one in 20 leaders were from these backgrounds.

“That is unacceptable for us as employers but as importantly it’s not good for our patients,” she added.

By committing to an annual independent analysis of diversity in the NHS through WRES, Dr May said the health service had “fronted up this problem” but she promised to go further.

“You have my firm commitment that we will both do more to take action against discrimination and to build a comprehensive programme to empower black and ethnic minority nurses and midwives,” said Dr May, adding that these initiatives would cover staff from frontline to board level.

“I want our profession to be one that is fully valued.”

Ruth May

An overarching theme of the CNO’s speech was about “value”, both the value of nursing as a whole and valuing nurses themselves as individuals, which she returned to a number of times.

She told the audience that “nurses are trusted but too often under-valued.” She then added: “I want our profession to be one that is fully valued.” 

In addition, she highlighted three overarching priorities for her time as CNO – build a workforce fit for the future; renew the reputation and value of the professions; and speaking with one voice.

Dr May called for action from the senior nurses in the room to tackle the “historic but still active stereotypes” that hung over the nursing and midwifery professions.

“If we are going to secure the future of our professions we have to renew our reputation and firmly establish our value,” she told delegates.

“Renewing the reputations of our professions is not just a goal in itself it’s a precondition for meeting all of the other challenges ahead,” she said.

Dr May added: “We know there is enormous work to be done and the stereotypes we have to address run deep.”

“Even today, every time I’ve said nurse, most of the public would have probably have thought of a woman – that’s how embedded stereotypes live in us,” she noted.

“We know there is low public awareness of what being a nurse actually entails”

Ruth May

The CNO said the workforce challenges facing nursing could be eased by making the profession more attractive to men – adding that “too often” half of the population were missing from the workforce.

To achieve this, nurses needed to show men and society as a whole the “true nature” of nursing”, said Dr May.

“We know there is low public awareness of what being a nurse actually entails,” she said.

“In the popular imagination doctors provide expertise and nurses provide the comfort; that nursing is about moping the brow and the floor, holding hands and clearing the vomit,” she told delegates.

“The role of nurses and midwives in prescription, in medicine safety, research and technical and clinical care is not spoken about enough,” she said. “And that leads people to think that nursing is for people who aren’t academic enough for medicine, suggesting it isn’t anywhere as near as professional, technical or skilled as we know we are.”

Dr May also used her keynote speech at the summit to reveal that Health Education England had committed £42m for 2019-20 to support a 50% growth in nursing associate recruitment and support those in training.

In addition, she laid out an action plan for addressing nurse shortages, acknowledging that this was the biggest challenge facing the profession.

She said the health service needed to improve retention by at least 2% by 2025 – “that is 12,500 skilled nurses we wouldn’t have to replace.”