Wāhine Connect instilling confidence in women around New Zealand
By MAS Team | 1 October 2020
In 2017, Dr Juliet Rumball-Smith posted a message on the NZ Women in Medicine Facebook group, wondering whether people would be interested in a mentoring network for women in health.
The response was an overwhelming “Yes!” So she established Wāhine Connect on a six-month pilot basis, to help women in the health sector who were struggling to balance work and family commitments, and were looking for guidance from women who had been there, done that.
Soon after, MAS contributed funding to the initiative and Wāhine Connect gained charitable status in 2018. Two years on, the network has boomed and has recently seen the 200th mentee complete the programme.
For Juliet, it’s been an exciting couple of years but the ultimate goal is to extend the network to include non-medical professionals and ensure it can run sustainably.
This expansion has been happening organically, with more mentees from other health professions getting involved over time. In Wāhine Connect’s latest cohort, 20% of their mentees came from non-medical backgrounds.
But that expansion brings with it its own challenges.
“To date, we haven’t had a lot of non-medical mentors on our database, so we had to do a lot more reaching out to find women to support these allied health, pharmacy and dentistry mentees.
“It’s been a lot of work but also fantastic to see it grow like this. I had always hoped we would be multi-professional, but getting there has been completely driven by our community.”
Bronwyn Clark, Chief Executive Officer at the Australian Pharmacy Council signed up as a mentor back in 2018 when the programme was just getting off the ground. She says mentorship programmes are essential, especially for women.
“Mentors make a huge difference. The opportunities that have come to me in my career have come by being supported and noticed by mentors - particularly strong women leaders. I see it as my duty to encourage aspiring young women to come up the ladder by offering my time as a mentor,” she says.
Bronwyn has also been able to create opportunities for mentees with other people in her networks.
“It’s all about making connections. I’ve been able to connect people together through mentorship programmes - I’ll end up meeting people doing pieces of research in specific areas and connecting them with someone who is also interested in that area,” she says.
One of the things preventing potential mentors from getting involved is a perception that they aren’t qualified or don’t have useful insights to share. But Juliet is quick to emphasise that career accolades aren’t the only valuable qualities in a mentor.
“People assume that only senior people in leadership roles can be a mentor. These mentors are fantastic, but so are the mentors who are fresh out of training, or right in the midst of the work-life juggle. Our mentors simply need to be kind and enthusiastic women, who are able to share their experiences with others in their field and lend a listening ear.
Robyn Lester, an Advanced Trainee in Emergency Medicine at Wellington Hospital Emergency Department, was apprehensive about what she would have to offer as a mentor before joining Wāhine Connect.
“Medicine is my third career choice; I was an older medical student and I changed pathways halfway through.
“I was a bit hesitant about being a mentor at first, but then I thought maybe there are other people out there that have struggled with changing roles and being older in this field. I thought I could offer something helpful for another woman who has taken a different path to get to where she is,” she says.
Stacey Goodson and Hermione Mathews-John are two of the more than 200 women who have now received mentorship through Wāhine Connect.
In mid-2019 when she signed up for a mentorship, Stacey – a medical registrar at Southland Hospital – was tossing up whether or not to pursue further study, and wondering how she would balance exams with her existing workload and with being a new mum.
“Working in Southland, it’s a little bit hard sometimes. Even though there are a few of us training in internal medicine we’re all quite junior. I'm in my first year as a registrar and I’m the only one in Southland sitting exams - so I didn’t really have people to talk to about the process and I found it quite daunting.
“I got really good practical tips from my mentors - even simple things that are great to know as a breastfeeding mum, like where you can pump at the hospital,” Stacey says.
Her mentors gave her the confidence to pursue the study and she walked away from the experience knowing that it is possible to balance all her competing priorities.
Hermione, a clinical psychology trainee in Northland, was in a similar boat. Mother to five children, Hermione was struggling with the lack of guidance in her profession, unsure how to balance study with her home life.
“Not many people understand the pressures and responsibilities on a young Māori woman in healthcare, trying to raise kids and study at such a high level. The pressure to do well - not just for yourself, but for your whānau, hapu and iwi – is intense.
“My mentor grew up in the area I’m from and has also been a young mum. She understood my issues and I felt it was a really good pairing - I felt supported and understood.
"Having the support of other women who are already in the sector was so helpful. They are paving the way for people like me and there’s a lot of good advice available out there if you just ask,” Hermione says.
Over the next two years, Juliet hopes to double the number of mentees going through the programme each year and for it to truly become a multi-professional programme.
“At the moment we are reliant on the goodwill of district health boards and various associations to advertise our programme and promote it to women, which can be a barrier for us and for potential mentees.
“I would love to see the programme reach more people from NGOs, general practice and primary care settings, and corporate environments. I’d like to get to a point where we have a more consistent and sustainable reach into the wider community,” she says.
She would also love to continue building the network and expand it to reach a broader range of mentors and mentees from different areas in health, particularly dentistry and allied health professions.
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