IWD Alison

International Women’s Day – Equality vs Equity

This International Women’s Day 2023 we asked Dr Alison Metcalfe, Head of Professional and Clinical Services here at the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA), to reflect on her career journey and what equity can do for women in the workplace.

6 March 2023

A chance conversation at a conference at the end of last year first got me thinking about ‘equity’ and ‘equality’ and the difference between the two. So ‘Embrace Equity’ as the theme for International Women’s Day this year took me back to that conversation and started me searching for definitions of the two terms.

I found a great cartoon representation of their potentially very different impacts illustrated by the ability to pick apples from a tree, requiring a ladder. Equity vs. Equality: What’s the Difference? | Online Public Health (gwu.edu) It got the crucial point across, that the same height of ladder - equality - may not give two people an equal opportunity to pick apples. A different height of ladder may be needed to give the same apple-picking opportunity - and that’s equity!

This was brought home to me during the fantastic reciprocal mentoring programme run by the NHSBSA that I recently took part in. While a very rich and valuable experience generally, one of my learnings, from understanding more about someone’s lived experience of discrimination, is how different support may be needed to create the conditions to have the same opportunity to thrive in our careers. And therefore, how important the initiatives that we run in the NHSBSA are for doing just that.

I reflected again on this last month when sharing my career journey as part of the Springboard development programme. Springboard is a globally recognised work and personal development course for women and a great example of one of those initiatives in NHSBSA helping to create the conditions for women to thrive in their career. During the session I was asked whether I had ever experienced discrimination, as a woman, during my career.

I had to stop and think. I’d never really thought about it before, which probably gave me the answer - that I don’t believe that I have ever been, or have ever felt I have been, discriminated against for being a woman. Lucky? Maybe. Fortunate? For sure. As a doctor, was that medicine generally? Or is it, perhaps, the lens I choose to see my career through?

Whichever it is, my lived experience has, from this perspective, been a positive one. However, whether that also means that the conditions were right, and there was equity of opportunity, to pursue a chosen medical speciality for a married, female, junior doctor in the 1990s with wider responsibilities outside my work – that’s a different question and one for another blog!

And it’s not to say that my career hasn’t had its ups and downs. At the Springboard session I joined, I shared five things that I have learnt during my career, so far, which I thought I would share here, and which might help to prompt different thinking or shed a different light on a career decision or journey:

  • Find your purpose, what’s important to you – what’s the thing, the important ingredient in your job that makes it meaningful for you? That might be your ‘golden thread’ to help you in navigating your career pathway.
  • What looks like a career derailer may just be a fork in the road – this might offer new opportunities or a change in direction that you wouldn’t have taken otherwise.
  • It’s never a good time to study – as soon as you are out of full-time education then studying for a degree or qualification will always lead to some juggling and compromise. While being realistic about what you can manage, don’t put it off to ‘the perfect time’ or even ‘a better time’ as that never comes! And the NHSBSA offers some great opportunities to study alongside work.
  • Value your mentors – someone that is interested in you, your development and your career and who will offer up challenge and support in equal measure, is invaluable to have ‘on your team’.
  • Take on additional roles and new challenges – while they might not be directly relevant to your career journey, they add an additional dimension to your CV and can distinguish you from others you might be competing with for your next role.

And while you are on your career journey there are three things that I am reminded of, on a daily basis:

  • Wherever you are on your career journey it’s still a journey and you’re likely to always be learning new things, facing new challenges and repeatedly asking – what value am I adding?
  • Feedback’s important – giving and receiving it. It stops you filling in the gaps with your more critical, inner voice and is so important for your confidence and self-belief, and above all
  • Look after yourself – what is critical for you to maintain your health and wellbeing? Make it a priority!

So, as International Women’s Day encourages us to ‘Embrace Equity’ and drive towards fair opportunities based on individual needs, let’s continue to support each other and create the conditions to help drive success for all in our lives and our careers.