Gillian Fairfield on how women can successfully take up the role of clinician and manager despite all odds

I am often asked how I managed my career to become a CEO, how I have survived for 11 years as a CEO and how being a woman and a doctor has affected my career.

When I qualified as a doctor in 1981, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and man had first walked on the moon 12 years earlier. That was how fast the world was changing yet it was a time when the career paths for doctors were still relatively simple and traditional – you either became a GP or a consultant.

You got on the ladder and didn’t deviate.

The majority of women chose general practice. I remember thinking about becoming a paediatric surgeon but, when seeking career advice from my consultant, I was told “It’s no job for a woman. Far too much standing up. You will get varicose veins and why spoil such lovely legs”.

Leadership roles

Thankfully such advice would be rare today and yet women in senior positions in the NHS are still not as commonplace as they should be.

Almost 35 years on I am neither a surgeon, nor have varicose veins, but I do run one of the largest acute trusts in the country.

Looking back, being a hospital doctor, GP, public health consultant, senior policy advisor at the Department of Health, BMA travelling fellow in the US, medical director and a CEO whilst also fitting in a three year career break to have my children, was an unusual career path.

I took opportunities as they arose

My career was not planned, it was not mapped out; the only requirement I have is that any job I do must allow me to hold onto my core NHS values and duties as a doctor, and also had to be interesting. Throughout my career I took opportunities as they arose, taken help when offered and did not listen to those who tried to limit me by ”doctors don’t make good managers” or you should try for easier jobs that fit in with the family”.

This means that I have had the opportunity to work across many sectors and specialties as both a clinician and a manager.

The argument that clinicians do not do well in leadership roles because they lacked experience in a pure management did not deter me from taking one on.

Now in my third CEO role there is now not much I haven’t come across and that experience has been invaluable for my confidence. I have had many setbacks on my journey but they made me more determined than ever to hold true to my values and self-belief and to develop new skills.

I have had an amazing career and I still don’t know where the end will be, but wherever it is it will be my choice.

Your difference makes you special

My advice to women leaders is that it is time to make bold choices. Choices that are yours. When traditional ”boy networks” are closed to you, develop alternative networks. Networks that I have developed include those outside of the NHS which allowed me different perspectives.

For those who are beginning their careers remember that there is no “best” career path, only your own and that holds true whether you are male, female, clinician or manager.

Your difference makes you special and your specialness will make the difference. Go for it.

Dr Gillian Fairfield is chief executive of Pennine Acute Hospitals