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Reflecting on International Women’s Day

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Yesterday’s International Women’s Day celebrations were just one of the many ways to acknowledge women’s journey to date and recognise the barriers which have been overcome over many years.

The Day is a global celebration marking the economic political and social achievements of women past, present and future and this year’s theme was ‘Be Bold for Change, encouraging everyone to:

  • take action that helps women achieve their ambitions
  • support the development of more inclusive and flexible cultures
  • root out workplace bias

Great strides have been made over the years, in achieving greater gender equality and this is progress that we should be proud of but there is more that we need to do.

To bring around further positive change faster, we must be willing to take proactive steps in forging a better working world that is a more gender inclusive world. Every woman, man and non-binary person can play a role in this.

At PHE we welcome and value the rich diversity of our staff and it’s critical that we take an inclusive approach that celebrates and promotes this diversity.

In our acknowledgment of IWD we want to celebrate women in the workplace and recognise the invaluable contribution that women in national and local roles have played in protecting and improving the nation’s health.

We also want to highlight challenges that women still face every day and generate innovative ideas and ways of improving the world of work for women.

As part of our corporate action plan, PHE is holding a ‘women’s chair takeover’ event this week and during this time we want all meetings, whether internal or external, to be chaired by a woman.

Although the majority of staff in PHE are female, women are still under-represented within the most senior and influential positions.

The purpose of this take over event is to celebrate the contribution that women make to the PHE workforce, and is an opportunity for those women who do not usually chair meetings to step into a role which raises their profile and provides invaluable development.

We’re aware that many women at PHE already regularly chair meetings and this initiative is intended to support and encourage other women to develop their skills and confidence – taking a lead from our positive senior female role models. Visibility and awareness can help drive positive change.

I was of a certain childhood generation where gross gender inequality in education and career was an accepted visible norm.

At medical school less than 25% of my year were women, several women in my school didn’t attend university which was considered by parents for their sons alone, and I personally abandoned my first career choice.

I wanted to be a paediatric surgeon but there were no women in surgical consultant posts and definitely not ones with children.

This seems unbelievably archaic now and I often actively remind myself that being used to an established position is very definitely not an alright position.

However that lack of early opportunity has almost certainly driven me towards a more exciting and senior career than I could ever have imagined.

I didn’t plan it. It has rather happened along the way, despite a tribe of small children and a later return to medicine.

It is only as I have arrived somewhere near the top of my career tree that I have looked around our organisation to find there aren’t many of us here. With hindsight the three pieces of career advice I have to offer are particularly relevant to women:

  1. Grab every single opportunity that comes your way – and go looking for more. Don’t find an excuse. Build your skills and experience widely and actively and use the diversity and other steps in place to help, whether this be flexible working or management training.
  2. If it isn’t scary you probably aren’t learning much – don’t be put off roles or positions because you think you can’t do it or have insufficient skills. You will likely just learn on the job and there is plenty of evidence to say men will be taking the roles without any more experience than you if you reject them
  3. Live your values in your work to drive you through the difficulties of breaking into work areas where women are less represented. Being passionate about your public health expertise will override any fear factor of progression on your part or acceptance on others.

The Be Bold For Change campaign is a huge opportunity for making a positive difference to creating an environment where all people can thrive because of who they are, not despite who they are.

This is why on International Women’s Day; I supported the Be Bold For Change campaign.

Dr Jenny Harries is PHE's executive gender balance champion

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  1. Comment by Nancy clark posted on

    All very noble of course.
    However, you only have to look at women and the changes to their pensions for those over 50, to realise the struggle still continues!