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4 March 2022
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How do we support women to realise their full potential - through leadership?

By Dr Daljit Hothi

FMLM Fellow and Associate for Leadership Development and Education

Tuesday 8 March 2022 is International Women’s Day (IWD), when women past and present are celebrated for the difference made by their contribution, and women’s future potential is placed centre-stage.

Observing IWD presents an opportunity to pause and connect with the rich tapestry of stories told about (and by) women from all walks of life, leaving no room for doubt on the positive contribution they are making in the world.

Women and leadership, presents a different story, marked by both an individual and a collective sense of inequity, frustration and disappointment. The statistics generally describe a gender pay gap, a proportionally lower number in senior leadership roles, and women being overlooked for promotion or opportunities for growth and development. I cannot deny this narrative, but I am also witness to another story; one of strength, hope and opportunities, which deserves to be shared and revered.  I am delighted, therefore, to offer an open invitation to a free FMLM webinar, How do we support women to realise their potential?, 8-9pm on Tuesday 8 March. The webinar will feature a fantastic panel representing a rich, diverse range of insight and experience among medical women.

Throughout my medical career, I have seen a range of leadership. The case for ‘good’ leadership is irrefutable and its value is growing as we move through our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. Granted, I have seen a lower proportion of women than men in official leadership roles, but I have seen many women practicing leadership, often quietly, unassumingly, without ceremony, display or tangible reward. Examples include the pregnant woman who is consciously influencing the environment of her unborn baby; the 15 year-old girl courageously dealing with her fourth cancer diagnosis; the patient that advocates for choice; and the healthcare worker who creates the mental and physical space for home schooling while continuing to care for Covid patients.

These everyday acts of excellence could feature in a masterclass on leadership, but they tend to go unrecognised or at best belittled in leadership economics. However, if we start to recognise the hidden gifts these experiences hold: the lessons, the wisdom, the skills, women may begin to realise that they are much further along in their leadership prowess than they credited themselves with. In my career I have never struggled to find a reason to lead, but low self-esteem stopped or self-sabotaged my efforts. Once I was able to re-frame my thinking, free myself from my personal ‘judgement monkey’ and lean into the growth from ‘failure’ and periods of stretch or discomfort, my agency grew. I started wanting more than just having a voice, more than the psychological safety of inclusion, I wanted to be creative and generative. As I granted myself the permission to positively influence (through my own actions and as 'me') my true journey of leadership began.

Once I embraced leadership as a career choice, my next decision was how and where to practice leadership. Today, we have a choice on where to serve, protect or advocate for others: small or large scale; behind the scenes or front of room; virtual or face-to-face. This has expanded the range of leadership roles available to women, and with it the opportunity to individualise our leadership journey. We are all different, with unique strengths and motivations. It is imperative that we take time and find our best fit as opposed to trying to squeeze into somebody else’s shoes and diminishing our effectiveness. In my experience, finding the right fit is not easy, but possible with active signposting from colleagues to opportunities as they emerge, combined with mentorship to cultivate self-awareness. 

As I reflect on the very concept of leadership in healthcare, I have seen a paradigm shift which I believe has been steered by women. I have seen women role-modelling multiple expressions of leadership, from a quiet, unassuming stance to a bold and daring one. Women are not asking for permission to be different, they are breaking through tradition, creating leadership diversity, bringing the concept of authentic leadership to life. They have taught us about the importance of duality: expertise and humility; credibility and vulnerability; advocacy and listening; authority and influence.

Today, more than ever, I realise leadership is not a destination, a goal to be reached, but a function, an attitude, a philosophy. Women are taking us on a journey to explore our relationship with leadership, and this has led us to new discoveries and infinite possibilities. Let’s honour this and stop asking the question, “are we there yet?”, and instead pick a path through the woods, finding heart, courage and wisdom.

My version of the women-in-leadership story is about a journey of discovery, purpose, progress, agency and possibilities.  I hope you will join me for the webinar on Tuesday 8 March, 8-9pm, to hear the leadership stories of a fantastic panel of female leaders in healthcare. All – including our male colleagues – are welcome.

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