Interview Series: Sarah Amani, co-founder of The Shuri Network

In our latest interview series, Angela Sharda speaks to Sarah Amani, co-founder of The Shuri Network about the importance of improving the representation of BAME women in the digital health space within the NHS.

Tell us how the Shuri Network was set up and the main purpose behind it.

The Shuri Network was set up and launched in July 2019. The network came about after Dr Shera Chok got in contact with me after she found out that I was the first Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) woman to be appointed as Chief Clinical Information Officer (CCIO) in 2012.

We spoke about our experiences of working in digital health and sadly discovered that we were two of only a handful (five at the time) CCIOs who are female and from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background. We decided that we needed to help make a change and that is the reason that the Shuri Network was founded.

What challenges have you encountered in setting up The Shuri Network and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge that I found was to support network members whilst doing a full time job. To put it in context, I manage a programme that spans 16 Trusts and 50 Clinical Commissioning Groups across the South of England – a busy job to say the least. Dr Chok is a GP at Tower Hamlets GP Federation and has various roles working with national bodies on several programmes.

What has been your approach in trying to challenge some of these issues?

Our approach has been to be inclusive, so we now have over 500 members, 21% of which are allies. We have also tried to increase the visibility of the issue of lack of diversity in these roles, through webinars and events, social media and interviews. Our aim is to amplify the voice of BAME women in the digital health space so that they get the same opportunities to not only land these roles, but to be supported so they can thrive in the digital health space.

Tell us about your biggest achievement in setting up this organisation. 

It’s still early days for the network and there are still only six CCIOs who are BAME, so whilst it’s been great to increase the membership and provide forums for sharing information about opportunities, the real achievement we are looking forward to is the increase in the number of BAME women in digital health leadership roles.

Why are allies fundamental to your organisation?

Allies can offer a range of help from connecting people with mutual interests – actually the person who introduced Dr Chok and I is Doug Stewart. Allies also help us to raise the profile of this issue by challenging practices which maintain the status quo, noticing when groups are exclusive and do not represent the workforce or patient population.

What are your views on the representation of BAME women in digital health leadership roles within the NHS?

It’s woefully lacking and requires significant improvement. Although it shouldn’t be the norm, it is very easy to become desensitised to being the only BAME woman in a meeting or panel where there really should be a more diverse group.

Dr Chok and I, often now say that the rhetoric from organisations about their commitment to improve diversity and equality is increasingly sounding empty as very little has changed and action is way overdue.

Why do you there is a lack of BAME women in leadership roles in the digital health space?

There are a range of reasons which begin at the recruitment phase for training as well as jobs including the ways in which adverts are worded, who is on the interview or decision making panel, the micro and macro aggressions that BAME women face once they are within these roles and the impact of that on whether they ascend into leadership positions. There is also the matter of what incentive or deterrents there are for organisations to change. So if organisations see no real consequence from their lack of diversity, they are unlikely to change.

What needs to be done to overcome these issues?

There is a lot that needs to change if diversity is to improve in the NHS, but we are all responsible and can do our part in our daily interactions and decisions about who we include in our conversations and decisions. There is also the matter of accountability and consequence which probably needs to be refined if we are to see change any time soon.