Panel Discussion: Women leading collaboration in technology in health and social care

HTN recently attended the NHS and Health & Care Women Leaders Network’s joint virtual celebration of International Women’s Day 2021.

There were a host of fantastic and informative sessions across the day – ranging from giggle-inducing wellbeing activities like Laughtercise, to thought-provoking fireside chats and panel discussions.

As the “unconference” is designed by and for the people taking part, there was a flexible element that made it easy to drop by and drop in on the sessions that suited attendees’ schedules and interests.

So, we at HTN naturally dropped in on the panel discussion entitled ‘Women leading collaboration in technology in health and social care’.

Hosted by Pollyanna Jones of NHS England, this chat featured:

  • Ming Tang, National Director, Data and Analytics at NHS England and Improvement
  • Dr Indra Joshi, Director of AI for NHSX
  • Tara Donnelly, Chief Digital Officer at NHSX

As well as addressing all things digital, the trio talked about the importance of male allies, supportive networks, and bridging the gender gap, as well as fielding questions from the virtual audience on all manner of topics.

After sharing their own personal stories about how they progressed into their leadership roles, the panellists delved into the challenges they’ve faced.

Indra began by explaining: “I quite often find and…it’s still the case today that I’m the only woman in a conversation, or the only woman in a team meeting or an event, and I’ve had to really push to say ‘actually, I’m not going to speak at this event now unless you have a more diverse panel.’ And I mean both gender but also ethnicity as well, to make sure that is called out.

“But I think my biggest nugget of what I’ve experienced over my lifetime is: really look up and look around to those women, and men, around you…it’s great when you have somebody who supports you and helps you and puts you in contact with others.

“Understanding that people who have experience in that particular area, and understanding from them what helped them get through the everyday challenges, is what I would say to others.”

While speaking about her leadership challenges during the pandemic, Tara also made an interesting point: “I don’t quite feel that I work in a male dominated industry,” she said, “it’s just worth saying. So, we know the NHS is 78% women – hard to beat that kind of ratio. But interestingly within NHSX, we’re about 60:40, which for a technology-based organisation is kind of amazing.”

The conversation later turned to flexible and home working, with Ming stating: “I think it’s really important to go into this thing as not one-size-fits-all…how can we make flexible working work for individuals…really making it ok for people to tailor work within their lifestyle.”

Tackling the subject of supporting women in their tech and data careers, Tara highlighted all the examples of support she had received throughout her journey, including how a female colleague “put in a good word” for her about a job having “only [just] met her in a cab – I think that was probably, surprisingly, influential.”

She added: “The only time, really, I’ve asked for different treatment than anybody else has been when I’ve asked to work more flexibly when I’ve had kids, and at a senior level as well. And four separate, all male chief execs were completely brilliant about that. So, I think we cannot underestimate the essential role of the male ally here.

“As Ming hinted at, you give people flexibility and you get it back in spades, absolutely spades.”

Ming followed up with her own anecdote about the importance of networking and “side conversations”. “Similar to Tara, I’ve met a chief exec on a train,” she explained. “We shared a really enjoyable train journey with a glass of wine. Through that I did quite a lot of work for her and she was able to help me on my career, because of just that one train journey conversation.

“If you’re not curious, and you’re not able to push yourself out in that way to make networks, it does make that slightly more difficult. So, if you are introverted in nature, then there might be some coaching that you might need or some mentoring.”

Continuing this thread, but in relation to how to transition into tech roles, Indra later added: “Go and talk to people; go and find a network or community where you feel comfortable talking to people outside of your everyday world. And that’s how you really find opportunities…nugget for anyone who’s coming from clinical practice: really just reach out and there are lots of communities out there.”

With some points that encompassed the overarching unconference theme of #EverydayCourage, Tara made sure to mention the importance of asking for what you want. “Even the best boss won’t be a mind-reader. Cheeky asks have really got me quite far in life; I would say, if you think there is an opportunity you think would be really useful for you…just describing how that could work, you’re more likely than not to get support for things like that…but your boss may well need that spelling out.

“The other thing I would say is that if you see a job opportunity, but you maybe feel you are not quite ready, I say ‘go for it’, as well. It’s only when you start recruiting and you write these jobs descriptions that describe someone who can walk on water while juggling at the same time, that you realise nobody is going to hit every single aspect of the person spec. But if it feels like something that’s exciting and interesting, then do go for it.

“We were hearing a story this morning from Google, a tech recruiter who was saying that she often got women presenting perhaps a year after they were ready, and men a couple of years too early. So, if you see an opportunity, do give it a chance. And then at interview itself, don’t hide that light under a bushel, tell us about what you’ve got.”

To round-off the session, the panel also gave their top tips for women trying to get into the [tech] field. Ming suggested “think about what you’re trying to change” when asking to get involved. While Indra added, “life is short. Take some of this with a pinch of salt. Go in with a smile…even if you’re not having a great day…you bring people along with you. There’s nothing more invigorating…than someone who’s enthusiastic.”

And Tara advised: “there is always going to be an IT project going on somewhere…where they would love to have someone else join. But you might have to look for those opportunities and ask for them…cut your teeth and learn about something that’s happening locally.”

Find out more about the event, or catch up on the recorded sessions by visiting the hopin site to sign-up for free.