Seventy seven per cent of the NHS workforce is female and 20% are people of colour, and yet there are still only around 10 women of colour in CIO/ CCIO roles or similar across the NHS. Data clearly shows that black women are particularly under-represented in digital leadership roles. Many black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) women’s voices and talent are not heard or recognised.

The Shuri Network is determined to continue to shine a light on BAME digital pioneers, challenge the NHS to do better and support our members such as Mary Olubi from Barnet, Enfield and Haringey Mental Health NHS Trust. During our inaugural webinar with Hunter Healthcare, Digital Leadership – Ingredients for Success, Olubi spoke eloquently about her struggle to progress in her career and the difference having a mentor, Cedi Frederick, the Chair of North Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust made.

The response to our webinar highlighted the huge enthusiasm and appetite by BAME NHS staff to get involved with informatics and digital innovation, and the lack of structured career support to give them opportunities to succeed and thrive. Taking your first steps in healthtech, navigating your way through the digital career jungle, building support and knowing what skills are required were the top learning needs raised by our audience and this series will help to address them.

Having a support network around you, your own personal ‘Board of Directors’ whom you trust including mentors like Frederick play a critical role in helping you to progress and survive in the NHS. As Frederick stated:

 “My role was to act as a mirror. I saw her potential and thought her road should not end at this point. I think we have a responsibility … I’m one of 10 BAME Chairs in the NHS. Two hundred and forty trusts, 10 BAME Chairs, that’s not good enough. Its about a hand up and supporting the next generation to succeed.”

“Be militant. Look for that way in, if the door is shut, look for the window and wrench it open if you need to. Find a way to get in,” said Sam Shah, director, Faculty of Future Health and global digital advisor. “Learn to have conversations and learn to build networks. Give yourself the time to have headspace away from work,” he continued.

‘Seize the opportunity’

What emerged from our meeting was a real sense of connection with Olubi’s story, and a lot of gratitude and love for what she and Frederick shared with us. These stories and narratives are rarely shared and we are honoured to be able to give women of colour a platform to inspire others.

All NHS organisations required to increase BAME representation at senior levels, including in informatics to mirror the diversity of their workforce or local population. How many NHS CIOs and CCIOs have been involved with their trusts’ plans to achieve this? With digital-first services, accurate data, apps and software tools playing a central role in helping the NHS to keep functioning during the pandemic we must seize this opportunity to attract the best and most diverse tech talent to help us deliver the transformation our patients deserve. 

If you are a digital leader you can start to have those conversations with and hear the experiences of your BAME colleagues in your organisation. Don’t wait for your HR team to do it for you. You can examine your trust’s recruitment policy and challenge the lack of diversity on shortlists. You can offer others the chance to have a cup of tea with you to find out what your role involves and tell you about their lives and ideas. To lose another year without taking action would be to pay lip service to Black History Month.      

As Heather Caudle, chief nursing officer at Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust who chaired our webinar said, “In Shuri what we are seeing is the power that our contribution can make. The fact that we are able to be the best of our selves. What Shuri has done is map out a really strong programme to help the NHS and to help England crack the problem of inequalities.”

Dr Shera Chok is a GP in East London and has held director and Board level roles in provider and commissioning organisations including Barts Health, Tower Hamlets GP Federation, Lambeth PCT and Derbyshire Community Health Services NHS FT. She co-founded the Shuri Network in 2019 as she is passionate about increasing diversity, innovation and safety and to encourage other BME women to lead and engage with digital transformation.

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