Center Studies Discrimination Against Nurses of Color

Originally published in the August 2005 issue of Bay Area Business Woman News, which went out of business in 2010.

BAY AREA, Calif.

In 1990, Registered Nurse Zenei Cortez was denied a position at a local hospital* for which she believed she was more than qualified.

“I was working in the Intensive Care Unit and had applied for a position in the Post-Anesthesia Care Unit,” explains Cortez, who currently serves as the California Nurses Association’s first Filipino vice president. “But the manager at the time told me I was not qualified, even though the job posting said that Intensive Care experience was required.”

Cortez later discovered that three Filipino nurses were already working in the unit and the manager did not personally want a fourth. “She said she wanted a Caucasian person to fill the position, even though our contract states that inside persons have seniority, versus someone from the Registry,” says Cortez.

According to the recently released “Job Satisfaction and Advancement of Minorities in Nursing” report by the Discrimination Research Center (DRC) in Berkeley, Cortez is one of many minority nurses frequently bypassed for advancement opportunities, despite being more likely than whites to possess a nursing degree.

“Our report was driven by the question of why there are so few nurses of color in managerial positions,” says Siri Thanasombat, program manager of the DRC, which was established after the actualization of Prop 209 to assess employment inequities. More than 1,000 minority and white nurses responded to survey questions regarding workplace relationships, promotional opportunities, and patient care, among other topics.

“If nurses of color have more education than their white counterparts, then they should certainly be reflected among the leadership in this profession,” says DRC Director, Monique Morris. “But that’s not what we’re seeing.”

What they are seeing is a shared perception of thwarted access to advancement opportunities among minority nurses. And perceptions are as valid as barefaced evidence when determining the presence of racial discrimination, according to Morris. “If nurses perceive this field to be one where they can’t advance to the highest levels,” she explains, “then it could impact whether they choose to enter or remain in the profession.”

Registered Nurse Practitioner Gayle Strickland* entered the profession in 1975 and has remained ever since. For her, staring down racial discrimination in the workplace is a daily task, right along with checking her patient’s vital signs.

“I’m usually the only African American in my position, so I don’t receive much support,” says Strickland, who concedes that her advanced RNP status may at times intimidate RNs and that some have refused to prepare patients in the exam room for her review. “I do of course feel that racism is the reason I’ve been mistreated on the job and denied opportunities for advancement, especially in larger facilities.”

When Strickland asked a pathologist in her unit, also a minority, for training on how to perform needle biopsies, the pathologist responded that nurse practitioners shouldn’t perform the procedure nor be trained how to do so. Strickland found the pathologist’s assertion nonsensical and uncorroborated by the hospital*.

Although Strickland was grateful to the white male pathologist who eventually agreed to train her for the procedure “in secret,” it wasn’t enough to compensate for her already dispirited work relations.

“I was traveling to work on Amtrak one morning,” Strickland recalls of her subsequent career move. “Instead of disembarking at my destination, I chose to stay on board for the return trip to Oakland, which was when I decided that life is too short to endure substandard treatment on the job and that I deserved better. I quit.”

But how might this same facility fulfill an African American patient’s request to be serviced by another African American if, like Strickland, black nurses are out searching for jobs in other, less hostile facilities—or industries?

How might the loss of qualified nurses of all ethnicities threaten California’s ability to provide culturally competent care to its diverse populace?

“Our study defines cultural competency as a staff that can connect with various ethnic groups,” states Morris. “We’ve begun to see fluctuations among nursing staffs as more people of color—and men—enter the profession, but this hasn’t been directly correlated with the people who are represented at the higher ranks.”

However, Cortez argues that it’s not necessary for nurses to hold managerial positions in order to positively impact patient care. This doesn’t seem to negate the DRC’s stance, though, that more minorities should be reflected among the industry’s leadership, given the finding that despite applying for promotions, they’re still unduly underrepresented among the promoted.

“We chose to share our findings with hospital administrators since they’re the ones who’ve contributed to our findings and have the power to create changes,” says Thanasombat, who also emphasizes the report’s recommendation that hospitals legitimize the grievance process for nurses. Mentoring was also cited as an effective means of empowering minority nurses against discrimination.

But could the finding that Filipina nurses were the least likely group to apply for promotions, despite being most aware of opportunities be largely attributed to Filipino cultural mores, as Cortez suggests?

“Filipino culture’s nurturing side, which tends to the sick, elderly and children, would rather stay at the bedside,” she explains. “So I think it’s a matter of choice, verses seeing it as a defeat because we know that once we’re promoted, we’ll be taken away from the bedside and that’s not what we want.

“I fought hard for two months to get that position in the PACU,” recalls Cortez of her 1990 ordeal. “And I still hold my position in the unit today.

“I challenge my fellow Filipinos,” Cortez continues, “especially the quiet ones, not to take discrimination sitting down. If we speak up and confront it collectively, we will have more power against it.”

Freelance writer Angela J. Bass would like to thank Strickland* and Cortez for sharing their stories. *Some names have been withheld/changed to protect identities and/or workplaces.