As a mother with experience as a journalist, barrister and politician, I know the last thing working women need is criticism from their own. So I was saddened to see a few words from more than an hour of nuanced and wide-ranging debate in Parliament used to paint me as a critic of female doctors.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I know from my own experience in male-dominated industries that working mothers face a tough choice between career and family. It’s a never-ending tasks to keep all the balls in the air.
As a child I saw first-hand the difficulties my own mother faced as she worked as a radiographer in the 1950s and -60s raising three children. Back then, working women with children were not supported at all and they had to fight for every little concession, even while they were paid less than male colleagues for doing the same job.
Today women working in the health system have better rights, but it’s no less difficult for them to exercise their rights. That is why they should be supported and championed and why we have taken action to encourage more women clinical leaders and are working across the NHS to encourage better flexible working.
That said, as custodians of an NHS under pressure we also need to acknowledge what all organisations must: that flexible working arrangements need to be managed careful to suit both staff and their employers. Meeting women’s needs as mothers can exist alongside the needs of any business; it just requires careful and honest thought to make it work. Of course flexibility can have an impact on the business, but there’s no excuse for not finding ways of making it work.
I’m not the first person to comment on this issue in relation to female doctors. Even the head of the RCGP, Dr Clare Gerada, has pointed out that we need more GPs to support part-time working. A sentiment we fully agree with, which is why we’ve pledged more training places for GPs, with 50% of students training for general practice by 2015. Having a frank and open debate about those obvious tensions does not amount to criticism. And it does not somehow suggest a failure to support women in that position.
This country has a proud history of giving women and mothers important rights in the workplace, so we mustn’t shy away from discussing the consequences now for fear of being politically incorrect.
Anyone who knows me knows the last thing I am is a slave to the PC brigade. Attempts to create faux controversy risk undermining the detailed and thorough Parliamentary debate necessary in a democracy. It risks reducing any discussion of important issues to bland and safe soundbites – again, something I’m not known for – but it’s not going to stop me or any of my colleagues honestly discussing the important issues which come before us.
The peril of speaking my mind is that people can sometimes attribute outlandish statements to me – even when these short quotes fail to reflect what I actually believe. I hope the hard working female doctors of this country see beyond the headlines and recognise I was not trying to criticise them. In fact they have my full support.
Anna Soubry MP is the parliamentary under-secretary of state for public health.