Before I joined Twitter, the Daily Mail was something of a mystery to me. It was a bit like the pet food aisle of a supermarket is to someone without any pets. You can see that it’s there, with people in it, but you just don’t need to engage with it. Those bags of cat litter and tins of meaty chunks are nothing to do with you or your lovely, pet-free life.
Then I joined Twitter and all of a sudden the Daily Mail was everywhere. The sidebar of shame, links to outrageous articles, sexist editorials – it became impossible to avoid. I tried not to click on the links, but sometimes curiosity got the better of me and I would rage against it’s ignorance and bigotry.
It was only when a concerted campaign against the Liverpool Care Pathway last year actually led to the withdrawal of the pathway as ‘a damaged brand’ that I truly recognised it’s power. And that scared me. I went back to avoiding it, not clicking on the links, burying my head in the comforting left-wing sand of the Guardian.
But last week (and I’m not going to link here, as that would be fuel to the fire – or customers to the cat food, if we can go back to the supermarket analogy for a bit) the Daily Mail published an article entitled ‘Why having so many women doctors is hurting the NHS’ by a surgeon called Meirion Thomas. Now, I’m not going to quote any of the article. Suffice to say that there were a few small islands of truth languishing in a sea of prejudice and conjecture. Also, my Dad’s name is Meirion, so I was a bit disappointed as I have always associated the name with kind and decent men who believe in equality and fairness.
However, what amazed – and pleased – me far more than the article had disconcerted me was the response.
Unusually for a personal opinion piece in the Mail, many organisations and individuals were swift and united in their condemnation of the views expressed in the article. The Royal College of Surgeons, the author’s own College, were unimpressed.
The Royal College of General Practitioners (languishing in the backwaters of medicine, according to our learned friend) were even less impressed. The fabulous Margaret McCartney wrote a two-for-the-price of one rebuttal in the Mail itself. The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh won the prize for brevity with a few lines that basically told us not to pay any attention to the attention-seeking behaviour. And the Royle College of Dean from NHS Employers won the prize for best headline with ‘Some People are Women, Get Over a It’ – badges and bumper stickers coming soon to an operating theatre near you.
It got me thinking. I’m a general physician in a district general hospital. In my department of over twenty physicians, three of us are women who work part-time. Between the three of us we have eight children and leadership roles for: Lung Cancer, Junior Doctors, Movement Disorders, End of Life Care, Student Support, Unscheduled Care (Deputy Medical Director), Tobacco Control, Orthogeriatrics, Tuberculosis, Clinical Coaching and COPD.
I think that’s enough ‘leaning in’ even for Sheryl Sandberg.
And rather fortuitously, I had my job planning meeting a few days after the article was published. Job planning in hospital medicine is a process whereby it is decided how much work is needed from an individual and how much time it should take them to do that work. So, fortified by the supportive articles, blogs and tweets, I decided that I would go into the meeting in a positive but realistic mood. Leaning in and juggling are almost impossible to carry out simultaneously, but many of us are doing it. The last thing that the next generation need is for us to somehow sell ourselves short, to martyr ourselves to the cause, to massively overcompensate for the perceived weakness of being less than fully committed to our patients somehow, just because we want to drop the kids off at school occasionally and get to the post office before it closes.
The meeting was – I think – a success. I came home that evening far less resentful of the extra work I had been putting it, far more enthusiastic about the leadership roles I had felt I was doing in my spare time. I felt valued, and as a result, I could see that I was likely to be far more positive and productive. ‘Wow!’ said my son. ‘You look like you’ve actually had fun at work today, Mum.’
Not fun, perhaps. I wouldn’t put it that strongly. But it was a good day. A day when I stood up not only for myself, but for future generations of women doctors who should know that it’s possible to work and to lead and to still feel that you are bringing up your own children. Daily Mail – you did that. You might not have meant to. In fact, it’s probably the exact opposite of what you had planned. But you made that happen. So thank you.