International Women’s Day & Spotlight on AACE’s Anti-Racism promises: March 2023

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This March, AACE is delighted to celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day by shining a light on women of colour within the ambulance sector, four of whom share their experience in this feature published as part of our monthly anti-racism spotlight series.

Shyamali Das-BharadwaShyamali Das-Bharadwa

“I have been working as personal assistant to the chair and chief executive of the Scottish Ambulance Service since May 2014 with the chief operating officer added on during the pandemic.

I re-located to Scotland from India in 2006 and learnt about the ambulance service in the UK as India did not have one when I left.  I was amazed at the work that took place in an ambulance service and was really keen to be part of such a service and finally got the opportunity in 2014.  I strongly believe that being able to work in this kind of an organisation – where you are doing everything you can to save a life or provide the best service possible – is indeed a privilege.  I have the honour of working for a chief executive and chair who have always been strong believers in equality at every level and in every sphere.  They have encouraged and supported these values and ethics throughout the organisation.

My role is not patient-facing; however, being the gatekeeper to a chief executive, I receive and attend calls from patients and/or their families as well as parliamentary representatives.  Many times, these callers are from different countries and language can be a barrier and often they just need a friendly voice.  As a woman of colour and knowing a few different languages, it has always been helpful in dealing with these with patience and understanding.  I am an active member and secretary of the SAS ethnic minority forum in addition to representing this service on the Scottish Government forum which encompasses the forums across NHS Scotland.  My aim and focus is to raise awareness of ethnic traditions and cultures amongst all staff which will help them in turn when they meet patients from varied cultures.  Lastly, my culture and traditions have helped me in forging connections and relationships with my colleagues across the service.

My experience of nearly nine years in the ambulance sector has been a very positive one.  I have a supportive leader who has encouraged me to participate in every relevant forum/group where possible, as well as developing my skills to enhance and diversify my work experience in the organisation thus providing opportunities to grow. 

As women of colour (and even men), we should strive to be open with colleagues about our experiences, feelings – positive and negative – behaviours, etc. to provide awareness and knowledge about other cultures.  To enable others to become allies, we should strive to `educate’ them so that they understand the differences to adapt and support each other.  If other colleagues are educated and knowledgeable, it will help them to work better with patients of colour as well.”

Alycia Johnson-WeekesAlycia Johnson-Weekes

“I am a clinical team navigator working in London Ambulance Service’s clinical hub. I have been a paramedic for eight years.

I am responsible for maintaining clinical oversight of the 999 calls made to the service. My team and I help to ensure that the sickest patients receive the correct level of care at the right time, whilst diverting calls that are not appropriate for an ambulance response to alternative care pathways such of GP referrals, mental health teams, community treatment teams or urgent care centres to name a few.

I joined the ambulance service as I enjoy interacting and helping people whilst making a significant difference to their lives.

My experience as a woman of colour within the service hasn’t always been the smoothest one. When I joined the ambulance service, there was very little support for people like me who experienced racial abuse from patients, and I remember approaching a team leader about feeling burned out and stressed from these experiences. I was told ‘It was just one of those things’ and not being offered any support. Thankfully, there is a lot more support available than there was five years ago. Now, working within the Emergency Operations Centre, I have experienced multiple incidences of microaggressions including people assuming I hold a less qualified role, or believing I am a nurse or mental health nurse. Why shouldn’t black women be paramedics too? And why are we assumed to be less qualified than our white counterparts? I can’t tell you the number of times other members of management have stood in front of me asking me if there were any managers around despite my epaulettes clearly denoting what I do. It can be frustrating and does not do much to negate feelings of imposter syndrome.

I am immensely proud of my job, and work with a great team of people. I don’t think I realised how significant it was to be a black woman in this role, until I had members of staff from minority backgrounds approach and inform me that it meant a lot to them to see someone who looked like them in a managerial position. I can’t stress enough how important it is for us to take up space. 

It is important for anyone willing to be an ally for women of colour within the service is to acknowledge your privilege, and accept feedback without being defensive. Speak up for us if when you witness racist/sexist behaviour. Don’t invalidate our thoughts and feelings when we are brave enough to speak up, and support us when we do.  Be a part of the change to eradicate institutional racism within the workplace – attend workshops, join either your service’s or the national ambulance BME forum.  Lastly, it may seem like such a small thing, but taking the time to greet someone and acknowledge their presence goes a long way for many of us who often feel unwelcome in the work environment. Never underestimate the impact you can have on someone’s experience.”

Karen HoldsworthKaren Holdsworth

“I am South Western Ambulance Service’s (SWAST) Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Lead.  I joined SWASFT in January 2022 and my role is to champion and advocate for equalities and diversity and ensure that inclusivity can flourish.

I have only worked in the ambulance sector for just over a year but I have experience of working in many work environments where my family background, ethnicity and religion have caused stigma and unconscious bias. I have lost jobs. I am Sicilian Arab and Muslim and I have experienced racism, islamophobia, been called names, been assaulted, my assistance dog has been kicked – and this has all been in workplaces where anti-racism and anti-discrimination practices should have been paramount.  My experiences are not unique BUT they have driven me to challenge and stand up and call discrimination out!

The photo of me is with my mother. The photo shows my Mum and me embracing – we were eating white chocolate buttons! I work full time but I also look after my Mum as an unpaid carer and that is a challenge in itself.  My Mum was a refugee into this country in 1936 as her family had to flee Italy and fascism that was raging across Europe. Her father had fought for the allies in WW1 as this labelled him and the family as an enemy of the Italian state. On arrival to the UK, they had to fight for equity and equality from day one.

My Mum often used to talk about being hungry as a child and young adult, having no clothes and not thriving and really struggling at school. She passionately believed that all people should have the same opportunities for a happy life and worked extremely hard all her life. As a child with disabilities in the 1970s, she fought for me to get an education as the norm was to send children with disabilities to a remedial school where they could be written off for life.

Mum’s fight for me to get an education culminated in me going into nursing and getting an MSc in Psychology and MPhil in Medical Science.

My Mum was a veteran of the women’s equal pay campaign in the 1970s and joined the Disability Rights movement in the 1980s to fight for me.  She instilled in me that if you want social justice and equity, you fight for it.  So when people talk about how we can work together to impact positive change, it is about belonging to a culture that sees how we can value and support people’s differences and be true allies to each other on this journey of #embraceequity.   This year’s International Women’s Day is about equity and embracing it. So when asked about how people can be allies for women of colour, it’s about making sure that we support and appreciate the job that everyone is doing and that we are improving the system for others as well as ourselves. We work collectively and listen to each other.”

Tasnim AliTasnim Ali

“I am a business manager in A&E operations for Yorkshire Ambulance Service (YAS).

I am a nurse by background and have held a number of different roles. I had worked in community services for nearly 20 years in leadership roles and needed a change. I saw a role as assistant director of operations in the ambulance service and it looked perfect. I was very lucky to get that role and feel very privileged to support those ambulance staff who deliver care to our patients; they are amazing. I have experienced a few job changes since being in the service and each one contributes to patient care. I am still registered as a nurse, and even though I am not a frontline member of staff, my revalidation process requires me to collate some reflective pieces on my work and demonstrate how it impacts on patient care, which I never struggle to collate.  I am confident about how my role helps the frontline staff. The nurse inside me is still alive, wishing still to make the patient central to all our business.

There was only one other member of staff from a diverse background in a senior role when I joined YAS. It felt strange a little for me, more so to be working with a lot of men. The conversations were just different.

I must say that I do get a sense that my colleagues are well behaved in my presence and are respectful and considerate of my needs. I’ve noticed a cultural shift with my senior colleagues – they are more overtly caring, and staff welfare is high on the agenda. Work feels like a safe place to be. However, I am not complacent, there is so much to do to make it an even better organisation, there are lots of people who are committed to fixing it.

I love it when people ask me about my religion and why I wear a Hijab. It shows a curiosity, and I’m all for helping people learn. I think with allyship you can be more curious about people and understand different cultures, we are not all the same, there are so many nuances. If you are a leader, challenge bad behaviour, model great behaviour, and look after the people around you.”

Further resources:

Video: Tackling misogyny

Dana James-Edwards
Head of Diversity and Inclusion, The King’s Fund

Getting involved:Most ambulance services now have women’s / gender networks established.  If you’re interested in getting involved, please contact the lead / chair at your trust – the contact details are here.

For further information contact Anna Parry, AACE Deputy Managing Director.