Dr Maggie Babb
Consultant Paediatric Anaesthetist
I was invited to write this profile for International Women’s Day, because I am a woman with a particular role in championing Less Than Full Time Training. I write it from the perspective of simply being a human who recognises that the working culture changes which are needed for many women would actually benefit all. My hope is that more compassion and respect might be shown to those who need, or chose, to work fewer hours, whatever their reason might be, and that some who haven’t so far appreciated the value and contribution of that section of the workforce might consider the issue more deeply.
Growing up in an affluent area in a family which valued education, I was fortunately never given the impression, by family or teachers at my comprehensive, that my options would be limited because I am female. It still surprises me, hearing the experience of others, that so many girls are still actively disparaged from following scientific careers. My upbringing was however traditional in that it valued the contribution women have made to society for generations through their roles as wives, mothers, carers and in other forms of (often unpaid or low paid) work.
Dad ran his own business and was actively involved in voluntary service in our community and beyond; on the council, governing bodies of schools, local radio, and more. Mum was very much proof of the saying “behind/beside every successful man is a great woman". I really valued the fact that my mum was home during the first decade of my life and I still do.
As the youngest, I was only 10 when my brother and sister left home to go to university andget married after college. Dad realised that his career and community involvement had deprived him of time with my teenaged siblings, so he stepped back from a significant number of commitments to spend more family time (maybe due to the arrival of grandchildren as much as any desire to spend extra time with teenaged me). From then, I was very aware of his decision to change his lifestyle, and what drove it, so I determined early on to seek a good balance between life and work because of the example set by both parents. Even at the age of 17, attending medical school interviews, this worried me. I could not throw away my education and potential on the presumption that I would become a parent, but the sacrifices I understood that medicine would demand of me seemed too much in the event that I should be blessed by parenthood.
I trained at the medical school of Newcastle-upon-Tyne University during the recession of the late 80s /early 90s, rapidly exposing me to a very different and much less advantaged UK than the one I’d grown up in. Looking back, this influenced my attitudes significantly, and taught me in a small way to “check my privilege”; understanding the consequences of that privilege (or rather considering the effect of not having that privilege) came into sharper focus last year with the Black Lives Matter movement and recently by social media threads which have focussed on the plight of medical students from less wealthy backgrounds. I believe that this awareness of my unearned advantages, alongside my committed Christian faith, has tended to motivate me to “speak truth to power” in support of others, when I’ve seen injustice, hierarchy, bad policy or simply bad luck compromising what is right and fair.
Sadly in my first few months of working as a doctor my dad was diagnosed with cancer and he died a few weeks into my first job in anaesthetics. The support and kindness I had from colleagues both senior and junior could not remove the distress, but certainly made it easier to bear. The hours we were expected to work in the mid 90s needed to change, the conditions still do, particularly for some who are experiencing extra burdens and responsibilities outside the work place. However, in changing the hours, we’ve lost some of the natural support relationships caused by working so closely in teams for so many hours.
Wellbeing initiatives are now starting to reclaim that lost ground, but some doctors in training have to deal with some really difficult issues outside of work, and in recognition of the support I had when I needed it, taking on the doctors support role seemed to be a good way of giving something back, sometimes the best solution for trainees needing some support is to take the foot off the gas and spend some training less than full time.
In my 30’s, as I embarked on motherhood and tried to juggle it with my career, with the influence of both parents colouring my idea of what parenthood should look like. The prevailing culture was generally geared towards getting women back to work as soon as possible after maternity leave and children away from their parents into funded places at nursery as soon as possible. I think a lot of this was pushed by radical feminist politics, which to my mind sought a work place equality agenda, in reaction to equally potent misogyny. Both failed (and still fail) to acknowledge, celebrate or value the tough but crucial work of running a family and household which many women (and a growing number of men) continue to do with or without a paid career alongside this role. This pressure to work more hours – already an issue in the UK – is exaggerated particularly in healthcare vocations, where the idea often persists that, unless it has your full and constant attention, you are showing insufficient commitment to your career to be taken seriously.
The reasons for needing or preferring to work fewer or more flexible hours are many. They may be temporary or career-long and anything in between. They are not isolated to parenthood or to women. I have seen that some prejudice directed against male LTFT trainees is the worst and that directed at female LTFT trainees is as likely to come from female seniors as male. It really is time to recognise the need to welcome into our workplace those whose life situation differs from the traditional medical norm, and this should apply to the whole team, not just medics, not just parents and not just women. They would enrich work life for all of us and help to shoulder the burden due to the looming human resource crisis in healthcare. Expecting 100% or nothing excludes these colleagues from persisting with their careers, and deprives our patients, and the service of the significant, much needed 40-95% they can give as well as later service, not to mention the diversity.
Given that the cost of living is relatively low in Staffordshire, that we have opportunities for all sorts of enriching activities on our doorstep, we would be wise to adopt a strategy of actively attracting people who want to work fewer hours. If our work culture started to understand and value this, it would be a significant selling point of working in UHNM and, contrary to some beliefs, instead of creating human resourcing difficulties would solve some genuine recruitment and retention issues.