Healthy Connections for Women in Medicine
Wāhine Connect started with a Facebook post and has blossomed into a growing network of 200 mentors helping other women in the health sector.
The not-for-profit was established in 2017 with the aim to help build networks and connections for women in healthcare, providing mentoring to help with the challenges and issues they face professionally and personally; and assisting with advice around career progression.
Run initially as a six-month pilot programme, Wāhine Connect was the brainchild of public health physician Juliet Rumball-Smith. She describes its beginnings as a “light bulb moment”.
“I love connecting people. I’ve always been a person who says, ‘You’re moving to Wellington? I know someone there and I think you’ll get on really well’. I wanted to use this approach to create a network of women in health who can provide flexible support for professional and personal challenges.”
Strong support for NZ women
In May 2017, she posted on the NZ Women in Medicine Facebook group suggesting a formal mentoring network for women in health. She was floored by the response.
“I received more than 70 messages in 48 hours. Some were from women seeking professional support. They were wanting to develop their careers, work through some difficult decisions. Others wanted more personal support. Some described feeling isolated, overwhelmed by a new role or position, struggling to balance all the demands on their time.”
Women reaching out
Rumball-Smith says she was particularly amazed by the “scores of women” who reached out offering to help others.
“They had been through it or were in the midst of it themselves. The struggle for work-life balance, the experience of bias, the training and exams – and were offering to help in a multitude of ways.”
MAS has come on board with funding for the last five months, which has allowed Wāhine Connect to register as a charity and set up its organisational structure. Rumball-Smith hopes the partnership with MAS continues to grow well into the future.
Sustainability and the Wāhine Connect pilot
“At the moment, I’m running it in my spare time, so long term, we need to fund staff to keep things going. I’ve had a lot of help from the broader community, particularly members of the NZ Women in Medicine Facebook group, which helped with piloting our registration forms, editing documents, supporting the matching process and volunteering as mentors.
“This year has been about making Wāhine Connect scalable and sustainable, and this evolution wouldn’t have been possible without the support of MAS, and I was also really lucky to have Pegasus Health and Northland District Health Board get behind my idea and facilitate the pilot,” she says.
The pilot matched 56 mentees as well as holding a series of webinars and events. Despite the end of the six-month pilot in March 2018, many of the mentor/mentee relationships are continuing to this day.
Balancing Kids and Career – Wahine Connect mentors are here to give advice
That’s the case for Christchurch-based emergency department consultant Suzi Hamilton who signed up as a mentee as she approached the end of her training and needed help applying for consultant roles. Hamilton was connected with an ED consultant based in the North Island who initially helped her with her CV and advice in applying for jobs.
“It helped to have someone senior to speak to who doesn’t know me so the advice was objective, and being able to bounce ideas off her without her knowing my colleagues or any internal politics was really helpful.”
Hamilton got the role she applied for, and she says her relationship with her mentor has continued with the pair catching up regularly via email.
“When something crops up, we get in touch to discuss things. I recently went on maternity leave, and she has children so she’s a great person to speak to about balancing kids and career.
“It was useful to hear her experiences with maternity leave. She’s been priceless in helping me balance being a consultant and a mum.”
Hamilton says the role of consultant means she’s gone from being a senior doctor to supervising shifts in ED, and her mentor has helped her with becoming a manager and running a team.
“It was a big step, especially as a woman. It’s hard to step into leadership roles without being seen to be bossy. A man is said to be authoritative while a woman is bossy. My mentor helped me with learning how to be assertive and come across in the right way.”
A relationship benefitting mentors, too
The relationships don’t just benefit mentees. Northland-based mentor Sarah Clarke says regularly speaking with her mentee has allowed her to rethink some opinions and reflect on her career and experiences to date.
“It’s easy to become fixed and stagnant in your opinions on a topic if you don’t regularly revisit them.” Clarke has been in rural practice for more than a decade, and her mentee was working in Gisborne before heading on her OE in Ireland.
“We catch up by video about once a month and have a loose agenda of topics. It’s mainly informal sharing,” she says. Her mentee has benefited from Clarke’s experience working overseas, and they regularly discuss big topics like competence and consent.
“Initially, she liked having someone who understands what it’s like to go into a new system, and we had lots of chats about how weird that is and the desperate urge to fix it. But now we’re discussing more serious topics, random spitball ideas.
“It doesn’t feel like a chore. I’m a busy person with lots on my plate, but it doesn’t feel like an additional duty,” she says.
Supporting all women in the health sector
And Wāhine Connect isn’t just helping doctors. Public health dietitian Edith Bennett has benefitted from her mentor’s advice and guidance.
Bennett, who is currently working as a Research Associate at Northland DHB, says the relationship with her mentor helped her navigate changing roles within the same organisation, as well as making the most of postgraduate studies for a future career path.
“She helped me understand some of the obstacles found when you change roles but remain in the same organisation, and helped me assess whether this was a good option for me.
“She used to be the course director of the programme I was doing and helped me figure out the best path after finishing my postgraduate diploma where I had to choose between doing a dissertation or a thesis. She was a brilliant match, presenting me the facts and recommending a course of action.”
Bennett says they took an unstructured approach to their mentor/mentee arrangement, with her mentor suggesting she get in touch when she needs advice. The fact Bennett wasn’t working as a doctor didn’t matter.
“It wasn’t just about medicine but how you manage the obstacles in life. We had a really great connection and she was really helpful; after the pilot stopped we’ve stayed in touch, and she’s still available to me if I need advice.
“Women in the health system face challenges and it’s necessary to support women no matter your role.”
Women tackling the boys’ club
Both Hamilton and Clarke say medicine can still be seen as a boys’ club, so having a programme set up just for women is beneficial. “It’s getting a lot better, but there’s still a sexist approach in medicine,” Hamilton says.
Clarke agrees: “Having specifically a women’s mentor group adds a sort of safety to it and allows women who would otherwise be nervous to speak their mind candidly in a way they may not if it was a mixed group.”
However, Hamilton has set up a mentoring programme for all genders in her ED, and Clarke says she can see a similar programme working well, particularly with male junior doctors.
“I recently read a book on shame in women, and at the end, it does touch on shame for men and the expectation that you can be anything you like as long as you’re not weak. Reaching out can seem like a weakness, but I think it could benefit some of my younger male colleagues to have people they can reach out to for help when they have issues and things they’re unsure of,” Clarke says.
“It’s easy to become fixed and stagnant in your opinions on a topic if you don’t regularly revisit them.”
Wahine Connect in 2019
Wāhine Connect is set to relaunch in early 2019, connecting more mentors with mentees and running more webinars and events. In the long term, the programme wants to expand into other professions and become a multi-profession programme.
Rumball-Smith says ultimately stronger networks and connections among those working in health will improve the sector as a whole.
“We know that team-based multi-disciplinary care is better for patients and for clinicians. I’m using that theory with Wāhine Connect – that connecting people of different disciplines has benefits for us personally and for how our sector works together as a whole.”
“Ultimately, I’m hoping that it will help not only women working in health but also be of benefit for our patients and the wider health system.”