It was very difficult for me to decide on just one woman to talk about. Initially I considered discussing either my sister or my mother, but I would have been too emotional about it. There are also, of course, some big names in the history of inspiring women; but I’m too ignorant to talk about it really, so I’d like to discuss the women in my day-to-day life.
I got thinking about the women who have guided me, who have helped me to restructure the damaging narratives that I had constructed for myself. So I’d like to talk about a woman who inspires me in the every-day, a colleague called Vicky.
Vicky is an obstetrician and gynecologist, and she just oozes kindness and empathy. Like everyone else, she’s stressed and busy, but somehow she is able to give you her time. This is something I’ve really started to appreciate as I get older — the ability that some people have, despite having no more time than the rest of us, to create a space for you and make you feel heard. People who give you their full attention. Especially in medicine, where there exists a dangerous and rather caustic environment between colleagues. There is a lot of violent language used when talking about situations or people that are frustrating or annoying. I don’t think we realise we’re doing it, but we’re creating an environment that does not help to solve the problem.
Vicky is just as annoyed and frustrated at the system as everyone else, but she is able to communicate those emotions without passing on a negative attitude. Throughout my whole medical career I’ve been looking for mentors, and for examples of ways to exist within this non-nurturing environment. I’ve also been looking for examples of how to be a leader. The questions I ask myself are: what do I aim for? Who do I look to, to show me examples of an alternative environment? How do I change a culture by being in it, and how do I influence the pool directly around me? It’s been really hard finding those people. Maybe it’s not about finding just one person, but about finding traits and personalities and combining them.
Meeting someone like Vicky was a revelation for me because I realised I could still have the ‘soft’ qualities that we’re told are weak and not compatible with leadership. Vicky is gentle but she is still a decisive leader — she’s completely a ‘woman’ in that environment. It excites me that this woman exists in a profession which I’ve really struggled with. It makes me hopeful. When I was a junior doctor, I was bullied by seniors, and I had an impression that you have to be hard-nosed and tough, because that’s what a leader looks like. I always balked at that image because it’s not who I am. Finding someone like Vicky was important because it made me think, ‘yes, that’s what I want to do, that’s who I can be’.
I’d also like to talk about Candy Chang, who is an artist living and working in the US at the moment. I first became aware of Candy’s work when I saw her ‘Before I Die…’ piece, which was a large area painted with blackboard paint and the words, ‘Before I die, I would like to…’ This board was full of different handwriting, different colours, people had written all over it. I saw it in Croydon, and anyone who knows Croydon will know that it’s not a visually pleasing place — the board had been put up in a particularly industrial-looking part of the area, which is a place that I find really dehumanising. The thing that struck me about it was that it was a meeting of humanity inside a society which, in its infrastructure, was not built for human beings, it was built for money. People exist within it, but it was not built for people. In that system there’s this board, and it invites a human voice; it invites a discussion without anyone needing to talk to each other. Which is great, because in London no-one actually talks to each other. I took the time to read what people had written, and I enjoyed experiencing all these voices and feeling like I was part of a community. It was the start of something.
The reason why this resonated with me in particular has a lot to do with my experience of working in A&E. During that time I met lots of different people, lots of patients, and I came across a need that people have — they constantly need to be heard, or at least have a space to talk in. I’m not saying that this would have cured them of their disease, but a lot of them just needed some time. This comes back to the idea that we need public spaces in which to connect with other human beings — not in a needy way, but in a very basic way. A&E provides a space for this within the confines of the doctor-patient relationship, but when you look outside of that there doesn’t seem to be many other spaces in which this kind of connection can happen. This instinct that people have to stop, check in with themselves, and identify a need that they have which might be manifesting itself in another way — it just isn’t serviced at all.
I became interested in researching how to find that kind of space or how to create it, and this is how I came across Candy Chang. I believe these kinds of spaces exist within religion, and within therapeutic environments, but generally in a secular society these spaces aren’t common. What I like about Candy’s work is that she has identified a need for a different kind of space for people to communicate within, which cannot be overtaken by certain kinds of voices, because no one voice can be louder than another. A space which gives equality, and recognises that not everyone can come together in one hall to discuss the needs of the community.
Her courage is particularly inspiring to me because I know that she has created this kind of work despite battling with mental health issues, losses, and particular struggles which could have held her back. She carried on regardless, and again this comes back to my need for examples of other ways to do things. She has shown me that there is another way for you to live your life, that you can keep going despite having issues to deal with. And that you can succeed. Her work tells me that you need to find your support, your tribe, wherever you can — and that you need to keep going. This might be very obvious to some people, but from the way I was brought up, I inherited very strong ideas about how certain things are done and I believed these to be non-negotiable. To find examples of people who are achieving the things I want to achieve in ways that I would not have thought possible fills me with hope about how to conduct my own behaviour, and create my own sense of leadership. It’s possible that the life trajectory which I had presented before me was not very compromising. To find that there are other ways of navigating this life, where I can still do the things I want to do, still achieve the things I want to achieve, and be happy — this is very important for me to survive.
You can see Candy Chang's work here.