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“I can't see you as a director of nursing” – how a nurse reached the board, despite facing racism

Published on: 19 Feb 2024

Karen Bonner, chief nurse at Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust, tells Adele Waters why she is still as in love with nursing now as when she first walked onto a ward.

“When I took this job I thought ‘you're never going to be like the 95% of other chief nurses in the country. You don't look like them and you don't speak like them,” says chief nurse Karen Bonner.

“That meant I needed to consider how I could be more authentic at work and be proud of my heritage. Because I am proud.”

Almost four years into the post of Chief Nurse & Director for Infection Prevention & Control at Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust, Bonner says she sometimes gets odd looks or the people who ignore her until they realise who she is. “All of those little insults happen to me on a daily basis,” she says. 

“But it’s important to be yourself. It’s important to know that you don't have to try to be something that you're not.”

Bonner began her career at Luton Dunstable School of Nursing, now based at the University of Bedfordshire, and she loved it from day one. “I discovered I was really thirsty for knowledge,” she says. 

After completing a two-year programme, she worked as an enrolled nurse before being seconded to complete her level 1 training as registered nurse in 1994-1995. Bonner then got the first staff nurse job she applied for at the Royal Free Hospital, London.

“I packed up my little Metro, said goodbye to Mum and Dad and headed down the motorway.”  From the nurses’ home in Hampstead she began her career as a staff nurse on a neuro medicine ward and, from there, progressed through many posts, including ward sister, matron, respiratory nurse specialist, all the way to chief nurse. 

Karen Bonner
“There aren’t many people like me — who are black or brown – on boards but I hope I can inspire more to follow." 


For many years, she thought a leadership role was closed to her.  “I was once told by a colleague – someone I really respected, ‘I can't see you as a director of nursing’. Those words stuck with me.

“When I took this job I was just one of 10 ethnically diverse chief nurses. There are now about 16.”

She hopes this small group of senior nurses will inspire other nurses from diverse backgrounds to see themselves in a lead role and believe that it is possible they could go on to run an organisation and  inspire the next generation.

“We need to understand the  importance of representation. People will say to me because they see me in this job, they feel they can do it. We can't underestimate the power of that.”


Coping with bullying

Bonner has faced other challenges on her way to chief nurse — the most significant being enduring episodes of bullying.  In the most impactful example, her mistreatment continued for several years, causing her to feel demoralised and lose confidence.

“I survived every day by saying ‘I'm going to do a good job’. And I did that for three years before I left and slowly re-built my confidence.”

Weirdly, she bumped into the person who bullied her several years later at an awards event. “She hugged me and I just froze, I didn't really know what to say. Afterwards, I thought I should have told her how she had made me feel, but it wouldn't have changed anything.

“Being bullied taught me a lot. It taught me a lot about people, about resilience and, actually, a lot about myself.  I had to de-personalise it and take the experience as an opportunity to learn and grow.”

Resilience is certainly demanded in her current role. Responsible for 4000+ staff, she jointly leads the community trust (a unitary board) and is the voice for nursing, midwifery and allied health professionals.

“These, these are tough jobs and it can be quite lonely — you definitely need your friends and your peer supporters around you,’ she says.  

Despite this Bonner loves her job and finds it a privilege to combine it with sitting on a number of national boards to help shape the NHS for the future. In fact her love of nursing as a profession has endured – 36 years on from the day she first stepped on to a ward as a student nurse, she is still as interested in and passionate about it. 

“I owe nursing a lot,” she concludes. “It gave me a sense of belonging. I found my people, my profession, and myself.  I’m really fortunate to have carved out a successful career doing something I love.”