Launching the 25 Women project
01 March, 2021
We are delighted to launch the Women and Mental Health Special Interest Group’s 25 Women project for our 25th anniversary. WMHSIG’s founder, Anne Cremona, shares the story of the group’s creation and her reflections in a special blog post.
Each Monday for the next month we will celebrate 25 women in psychiatry, by presenting five of our unsung heroes at a time, alongside a blog post from our steering group that links through to stories of their careers and life journeys. We have worked with an incredible woman filmmaker, Inshra Russell, and will share our short film at our launch event on International Women’s Day and a podcast later this week.
Our project seeks to explore the breadth and depth of women’s achievements, but not only that; we have looked for the unrecognised successes, those that will never make it onto a CV. We shine a light on stories of quiet dedication to serving patients and supporting colleagues; of commitment to continuing a career despite ill health, disability, traumatic events, or caring responsibilities; and of facing the daily exhaustion of breaking stereotypes when your gender, skin colour or accent does not fit the mould people have made for your profession.
We have asked our 25 Women to tell you the ‘how and why’ of their careers, rather than the uninstructive ‘what and when’ approach which is the focus of most awards and job applications. Those coming next will gain nothing but feelings of inadequacy from looking at others’ achievements as a list of roles and dates. By contrast, we are sure that the reflections and revelations that the 25 Women share will offer paths for others to explore as they start out, or reach crossroads, in their own careers.
Naturally, many themes in these journeys are especially common amongst women; we hope, however, that these stories will not be viewed reductively as ‘only for women’. We are sure that colleagues of any gender will find something to connect to their own life and career, we hope that everyone will encourage students and trainees to read them. Our goal map explores some of the ways we hope to have an impact through this work.
Women’s achievements are especially under-recognised; women are the solid backbone of all health professions, yet there is no shortage of data within and outside of medicine to show that women are underpaid for equivalent work to men. The gender and Black, Asian and minority ethnic disparity in Clinical Excellence Awards (CEAs) and the gender pay gap are some of the few hard data ways we have of shining a spotlight on the current level of inequality in medicine; we have used a medical humanities approach to bring out the twists and turns in women’s careers and personal lives that lie hidden behind these statistics.
COVID-19 has battered us all from every angle, yet the burden at home has fallen most heavily on women’s shoulders. Outside of medicine, we hear that women find it harder than men to ask for pay rises; CEAs are our pay rises in medicine, and women are not putting themselves forward in equal numbers to men. It is hard as a less-than-full-time clinician or recent returner from maternity leave to imagine that you have done enough to impress a panel, and there is a dearth of effective initiatives to address this. Challenges in our personal and working lives are universal, although they certainly differ in degree and duration, and several of our 25 Women describe challenges in their most extreme forms. Yet where are the conversations about the impressive success that lies in overcoming them?
We chose to focus strongly on women with no previous public platform; we include a small number of women with higher pre-existing visibility within the profession who wished to share personal insights for the first time. We have selected the most diverse and representative range of women and themes possible from our nominations, yet we know that by nature a project with some public exposure will miss those highly personal stories which women did not come forward to tell. Many all-too-common traumatic experiences that change people’s lives are missing, including domestic violence and abuse, sexual harm and sexual harassment; we know many psychiatrists are survivor professionals and bring special depth and compassion through their lived experience.
Women’s diverse sexuality and trans women’s lived experience were themes we hoped we would have the opportunity to include from our pool of nominations but were not openly voiced. Though pregnancy and childcare are raised by many, we notice that severe menstruation-related symptoms and the menopause, despite their common and sometimes devastating impact on health and careers, are not. There are so many important stories still waiting to be told. We have kept in our thoughts all of those of any gender who are not yet ready to share their journeys or lack a platform to do so, and we hope one day it will be possible for us all to talk more freely about everything we have overcome to reach success.
The seeds of this idea were formed the day WMHSIG co-chair Beena Rajkumar and I first met two years ago, as we discovered with excitement our shared interests in women's leadership, complex trauma and success against the odds. The project could not have happened without the unhesitating support offered by Adrian James, Paul Rees, and many other staff and Members of the College whose contributions are highlighted on our project pages.
We were incredibly lucky to find the four wonderful women on our steering group, who were instantly equally excited by the crystallising project: Philippa Greenfield, Jo Talbot Bowen, Julia Barber and Ilaria Galizia. Neatly illustrating some of the key points of this work, our weekly meetings, held outside of work time, were all attended by two new babies and a bump, with occasional visits from curious or hungry children and pets.
COVID-19 has increased the pressure on our already under-valued and over-stretched mental health services. The pandemic placed many barriers in the way of our filmmaking and celebration, and it was tempting to put this work aside and focus purely on the immediate situation. It has laid bare the inequalities in our society and the urgency of addressing these; thus we were encouraged by College that it was important to go ahead, and COVID-19’s lessons on the ubiquity of gender inequality should spur us on all the more to celebrate the contributions of our women psychiatrists.
Today our first five women explore themes including crossing cultures to the UK - and back again; returning to work after traumatic events; complex caring responsibilities for children and parents; psychiatrists’ own mental health; trainee activism; taking the plunge from specialty doctor to trainee in the fifth decade of life; and, not to be missed, the life-enhancing impact of solo travel, writing historical fiction, and a passion for volcanoes!
Without further ado we introduce Kim Barkas, Nandini Chakraborty, Fiona Duncan, Bhargavi Chatterjea Bhattacharyya, and Rubina Anjum. We hope you will be as inspired by them as we are, and that you will look forward to meeting five more unsung heroes next week.