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Women leaders and the health & social care sector

Hollie Venn, CEO at Quetzal, writes about her experience doing research analysing the work of women leaders in the health and social care sector.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

Following an unsuccessful internal interview in an organisation where I had been for over 12 years, as a goodwill gesture in recognition of the need for further personal development, I was incredibly fortunate to have an agreement that the organisation would fund an MSc in Health and Social Care Leadership.  So out of a disappointing situation, a positive came! I had thought my university days had finished, but this was the start of a three-year period that was personally and professionally challenging. 

Compared to my first degree, I quickly realised that as I was working full-time, I would need to be incredibly disciplined with my time and what I call my “mental storage” – what time I dedicated to thinking about aspects of my life that were quickly either work, MSc, everything else (which was not a lot!).  Someone who had completed the course told us, and I remember thinking when she said “you will stop doing everything you love” as a bit dramatic, however, half-way into the first assignment I knew what she was saying held valuable truth!

Over the course of three years, the six completed assignments and dissertation facilitated valuable and critical thinking about work practices and environments, particularly in relation to the sex-based differences in leadership I had observed in the traditionally hierarchal organisations I had inhabited. I would say I was always aware of these differences, however the MSc crystalised this for me, and I wanted this to become the focus of my dissertation.

Leadership literature is incredibly andro-centric which is unsurprising when you consider its inception came largely from the military and corporations (where men largely predominate).  Peter Northouse’s book, Leadership, shows how the concept has developed over time and how theories have evolved.  However, the focus of such analysis is rarely the Health and Social care/Voluntary sector, so whilst this makes interesting reading, I often found it un-translatable to the sectors I have inhabited over my working years. 

I wanted to explore this more in my dissertation; “I am woman, hear me roar? A phenomenological approach of women’s lived experiences of leadership in the health and social care sector”. I interviewed eight women from health and social care environments who were frontline managers up to senior leaders. It made for illuminating reading and learning, but what struck me the most was hearing time and again not only how irrelevant leadership theory is (and they have a point, it is a dry subject!), but that as women they faced many barriers and enablers in their leadership journeys which often led to experiencing Imposter Syndrome, and equally, where they were senior leaders, a sense of loneliness. Here’s a copy of my dissertation for further information and sleepless nights.

After completing my dissertation, I became really interested in how leadership for women who traverse the health and social care worlds could be more meaningful. Consequently, I spoke to ACEVO about how valuable mentoring could be (many women cited using them and seeking out other women to do so and its great ACEVO offer this matching service) and the use of Action Learning Sets. I am thrilled to say, ACEVO took up this challenge and have delivered a pilot action learning set of which I was delighted to be a part of.  Whilst these can be a big commitment in any senior leader’s diary, I will urge anyone interested to apply if the opportunity arises through ACEVO, to go for it. It has helped me really focus where my leadership energies should be applied, provided me valuable reflection space, and helped me form new relationships with amazing peers I would not have otherwise met.

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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