Cavita Chapman reflects on staff networks

Mon 21 Feb 2022

Cavita Chapman reflects on staff networks

Cavita Chapman, head of EDI for the Southeast Regional team at NHS England, explains why she believes equality must meet strategy  

By Murielle Gonzalez

Trinidadian-born Cavita Chapman is a mental health nurse with more than 20 years' experience in the UK's health sector — and she is an equality champion. Chapman currently works as Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) for the South East regional team at NHS England, and in that role, she has seen the challenges and opportunities that colleagues across trusts face in their efforts to celebrate diversity and foster a culture of inclusion in the workplace. Chapman will be speaking at 'Staff Networks' on 30 March, and this interview is a prelude to the valuable insights she will present at the event. 

"We are at a junction where most staff are familiar with what equality is and what diversity means — they interact with equality, diversity and inclusion in different aspects of their jobs," says Chapman before revealing her vision for the sector. "As a senior leader, I want to see more strategic thinking in how we design the provision of care. I think equality must meet strategy." 

For Chapman, one of the challenges at NHS trusts is bringing the conversation about equality, diversity and inclusion forward and into your business plan. "At the moment, it's an afterthought," she says. 

Chapman explains: "For example, when you're writing a five-year business plan in any organisation, you would have a finance director on the board — you can't plan without knowing how much money you have.

"In the same way, you need to understand the needs of people from an equality perspective because you can't plan without consideration of all the characteristics we have protected by law — age, disability (including mental health and carers), gender reassignment (transgender, nonbinary, gender diverse), pregnancy, maternity, marriage and civil partnership, race (ethnicity, heritage groups, nationality), religion or belief (including atheism, ethical veganism, and pacifism), sex (male and female), and sexual orientation (lesbian, gay, bisexual, heterosexual). These protected characteristics are fundamental to the people you're planning the care for and to the people working for you in a trust." 

The EDI mindset 

Chapman believes that embedding equality, diversity and inclusion in business planning allows organisations to allocate a strategy — and resources — where equality issues arise. She argues that in the same fashion that businesses seek to design out inefficiency to make a profit, in equality, you seek to design out the disadvantage because it will only cost you more later. "Designing out the disadvantage allows us to design in all the advantages for people who need them the most," she explains. 

Portrait photo of Cavita Chapman

Can you give an example of how to embed the EDI mindset in your planning? 

For example, when you design the rotas and budgets for a team in your trust, ask yourself: have I done it with the parents, the disabled staff, and the newcomers, carers, etc. in mind, or have I designed them with a default five shifts a week, full-time working hours?

If you are designing service, then all the protected characteristics must be taken into account in terms of access. Equality is about access, and we want to design with people in mind to take away disadvantages.

It might take longer, more flexibility, or a certain amount of money, but equality is about fairness, and fairness is about customising. 

What does customising mean to the intersectionality of protected characteristics? 

Intersectionality happens when navigating society and one of your intersecting identities (those that are protected by law) gives you an advantage, a privilege or causes discrimination. For example, we hear about white privilege a lot, but if you only relate privilege to whiteness, you only focus on one intersecting characteristic: ethnicity. What about all the others?

In my experience, white women may have more privilege than me because of the perception in society that a white woman is more talented than a woman of colour. But there are other spaces where my intersecting characteristics gives me an advantage because I'm a woman [born in Trinidad], and I bring cultural capital with my lived experiences. I may also have more privileged than some white disabled women because I am not disabled, and I don’t face the same inconvenience as they do.

The question is, how do we help people to compete? As an equality person, I believe this is about seeing your identity as a competitive advantage. For example, isn't being a black nurse your biggest competitive advantage? Think about what you had to do in your life differently from other people. You're not just coming with intelligence and professionalism but with three or four more capabilities – resilience, perseverance, you name it.

Can staff networks help address equality in the workplace? 

Staff networks are made up of people who are activists for equality, be it race, disability, gender, LGBTQ+, and are given the autonomy to advocate for their rights. We're meant to have them empowered and offer inspiration and hope to our colleagues in a trust.

This activism needs to be supported, but sometimes there's no governance or mandate for staff networks. Most staff networks chairs take on the role in their own time, and they don't get paid for it. So, for example, I might be a band 5 nurse for cancer, but I'm doing one day a month for my network – and that's a lot to take on in a day.

What are the challenges that network staff chairs face? 

I've done informal interviews with them, and feedback reveals a lack of structure and support. Their work is twice or three times harder than their colleagues, and the experience is even harder for chairs of disability networks because they have the extra layer of disability. The challenges they face stem from the nature of the role.

What is the nature of the role? 

The nature of the role is sometimes escalating, supporting, and conveying the poor experiences of colleagues at work to management. When you are a chair of a staff network, everyone comes to you with their problems, and hope that you help them report these issues to managers. 

Feedback from chairs suggests that, at times, management doesn't listen. And coming back to the intersectionality, a chair of a disability network might have to work twice as hard due to their disability. So, the support that staff networks need also must be customised.

What can be done to strengthen and support staff networks? 

A culture of equality starts at the top with leadership. For example, take disability: I'd like to see the CEO of a trust saying out loud, 'we welcome you, and if you're disabled, we will customise the job to your needs.' Instead, what we're hearing is 'we have a reasonable adjustment policy'. These are two different statements.

The first statement makes me feel that I belong, that you like me, and you will customise the job to my needs so that I can do it the best I can. It tells me that you understand that I can do the job in a context that might be different from an abled person, but you will appreciate it. The second statement tells me that some adjustments are going to be reasonable., but reasonable to whom?

For Cavita, leaders at NHS trusts can empower their staff and their staff networks — they need to know that they will never get into trouble for customising a job if it's required. "Our band 6 nurses and band 7 ward managers need to know that resources for equality and inclusion have been budgeted as part of the business plan of the trust. My vision is for equality to be fed into the strategy for each organisation, not just on paper but in real life," she concludes.

'Staff Networks' on 30 March is a bespoke training day that Dods Diversity & Inclusion is hosting for South West London and St George's Mental Health NHS. Should your organisation is interested in a bespoke D&I event, send us an email to or contact Claire Walmsley, Director of Dods Diversity & Inclusion on



Murielle Gonzalez, content strategy manager at Dods Diversity & Inclusion, is an experienced journalist and editor. She can be reached on

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