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International Women’s Day 2020

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Today marks International Women’s Day, which is not usually something I would acknowledge. I can already hear some readers exclaim “When is International Men’s Day?” but this year’s theme is ‘an equal world is an enabled world’ which has caused me to reflect on my own career and I want to share with everyone a personal moment of enlightenment (pun intended) during Diwali when I travelled to India last year.

Susan Int Womens Day 2020

Gender has never been a personal barrier to me. I was brought up in a way which never caused me to consider that I could not achieve anything because I am female. During my career, I have often found myself being celebrated as the ‘first’ or only woman in my position, which I found frustrating. For example, when appointed to my first consultant position in intensive care and cardio thoracic anaesthesia, I was the first female consultant to be appointed in any specialty within the trust for 22 years. In my second consultant role, I was the first female ever in that position in my department.

I used to be surprised when people commented on these facts, I distinctly recall one day, whilst scrubbing up in theatre that someone asked “are you the new female consultant anaesthetist?”, I agreed that I was the new consultant and clearly happened to be female. 

In several leadership roles, I have been the only woman in the room. It never occurred to me that this was down to anything other than my capability and competence in the post. I have often been asked to join women’s development events or speak about my role as a senior clinician and NHS leader in the context of being female but have declined as I haven’t recognised it as an issue. I have struggled with the concept of positive discrimination to gender balance or appoint on any basis other than merit.

I hadn’t however appreciated that I’d had opportunities that others hadn’t. Nor had I acknowledged the challenges I’d faced. For example worked part time for a few years as a doctor in training which significantly lengthened the time of my training. There was no paternity leave and I couldn’t share my parenting responsibilities as my husband also had a career. It didn’t occur to me that it shouldn’t be that way.

I also found myself taking postgraduate exams in less than favourable circumstances as compared to

my male peers. In my FRCA part 1 viva, at 30 weeks pregnant I climbed several flights of stairs to get to the interview room and could barely breathe when I got there. During the advanced life support station, I could hardly get down near the dummy to perform CPR. Now I am a mum of three.  My 21-year-old daughter has been brought up with the same values as me. I have never considered that she might not achieve anything she wishes to because she is female.

I have been lucky enough to travel widely and have seen many cultural  contrasts ranging from disadvantaged populations to socially and economically advanced countries such as Scandinavia. 

Last year, my husband and I took a holiday to India. We were honoured to be invited into a family home to join in with Diwali celebrations. It was an amazing experience but I could not fail to notice that the girls were treated very differently as compared to their male cousins with whom they lived and there were no aspirations for the girls in terms of education or future careers whereas the boys proudly showed us their schoolwork and talked of their desire to become doctors. The surprise for me was that this was in a family where the wives were educated professionals. There is no criticism placed here, it is just a different culture and different set of values and beliefs to my own culture but it made me realise how remarkable the women I’d worked with from other cultures truly were in terms of the academic and professional achievements.

For me, this was a wakeup call, I enormously admire the women from different backgrounds to my own who have had to fight for their education or opportunities. I am now in a position of responsibility to make sure the door is open for anyone who wants to step through it. I am determined that we are able to provide opportunities, should women wish to reach for them. I am committed to do more for women who don’t readily have the tools or development opportunities that they need. I recently donated some clothes to the charity Smart Works who provide a dressing and coaching service for unemployed women with confirmed job interviews. Any small gesture or offer of support can go a long way.

I am proud to be one of few female CEOs with a medical background and I know that whatever our gender or position, we can all actively choose to challenge stereotypes, fight bias, broaden perceptions, improve situations and celebrate women's achievements. I am also proud of every single female, whatever their background or culture who works so hard every day to make a difference to the lives of others. Collectively, each one of us can help create a gender equal world.

Let's all be #EachforEqual.

About the Author

Susan Gilby, Chief Executive

Chief Executive of the Countess of Chester Hospital NHS Foundation Trust

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