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Interview series: Diversity and inclusion in recruitment, retention and upskilling in health tech.

A conversation with recruitment consultant Bernadette Clarke from Evolution Recruitment Solutions.

by Alejandra Hernandez

As part of my work in health tech and my interest in equity, diversity and inclusion, I have embarked on a journey of speaking with many inspirational colleagues and innovators. This is the second conversation of my interview series of recruitment, retention and upskilling in health tech. I hope to shine a light on a recruiter perspective regarding the way the market has been reshaping as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the opportunities and challenges foreseen in the future.


My conversation is with Bernadette Clarke, Director at Evolution Recruitment Solutions and HER+Data Manchester Organiser, consisting of four questions and answers in which she shares her experiences, opinions, and learnings.


Can you tell us about your story, and how did you become a recruitment director at Evolution Recruitment Solutions who looks into empowering underrepresented groups in health tech?


I have been in recruitment for 17 years. I think recruitment has a reputation, definitely within contract recruitment, for being fairly aggressive in terms of the sales culture. There might have been one or two females in the teams that I'd worked on, but you'd look around an office of 30 or 40 people, and on the leadership side, there would be fewer females than males. By my own experience, I always thought that you needed to be quite aggressive to be any good. I associated those types of behaviours and attributes with ones that were positive, so it took me years to be authentic, and to be at ease with my own leadership style.


I was always picked as someone that would be a mentor for other women who were coming through whichever businesses I was in. I've worked for three different recruitment businesses, and there might be a slightly different slant from an organizational perspective, but it feels the same when you're working within those teams.


I was then asked to get involved in something from a commercial perspective. I was running data teams at the time and there were lots of data meetups that I could have got involved in that were all quite technical, but I saw one that was around women only. It was HER+Data. It really diversified my thought. I would probably be the only person from a recruitment background within those meetups, out of about 80 women. But what you have got in common is that you're all women, and you're all working in a professional environment. You can take what applies to someone over here into your own working life or into your own business.


For me, it was very poignant to be part of those conversations. To hear women say that if they were spoken over in a meeting, they wouldn't say another thing for the rest of the time. Or that coming back after maternity leave had crippled their confidence and no one realized that. Or the struggle with imposter syndrome when they changed roles, or they were expected to do something they had not done before. Hearing these made me think. It might be happening in tech or a finance company, but that's also actually happening to me, and maybe I don't talk about that with my peers. But it's funny that all my peers are male, so maybe we don't have those types of conversations. I found HER+Data to be a safe place to be able to share experiences and talk to other people. Then I found out that I was helping other people by putting those groups together, which gave me a lot of confidence. I found a joy with doing that. I really enjoyed doing those groups, all on a voluntary basis, because it was something that I developed a passion for.


I joined evolution as the first female board director. That in itself was a huge challenge for me, because I walked into a room of people that have worked together for a long time, that have their ways of working, and I had to speak up and be heard (luckily I was allowed to be heard in the first place). We made little, but important changes. For example, they always used to speak over each other. I said: ‘Gentlemen, do you realize you're doing that?’ I said that at the start of every meeting and now, they don't do it anymore. But it's taken a long time to get to that point. I believe that it's about improving the workplace for those that are going to go behind us.


I know you have interviewed around 70 women working in the NHS to learn more of their stories while working in digital health. Can you tell us about how this project started and what have you learned from it?


It was a bit of a combination of the work I was doing within the NHS then using my background with HER+Data, and realizing that if this group of 70 women over here felt like I have. I assumed other leaders within the sector might also feel the same.


I was talking to Lisa Emery at the time. She's the CIO of Royal Marsden. I floated the idea on talking to other leaders. She said: ‘That's absolutely fine, just interview me first.’ You do need an advocate, someone who's got your back, someone who's willing to do you a little bit of a favour, someone to see something new, and get something off the ground in the first place. If I hadn't have talked to her about it, then the idea wouldn't have happened. She was very positive. Her view is to never pull the ladder up for other women. She is a role model in any space, it doesn't matter who she interacts with. She very kindly went first.


Then, with anything like that, it's a bit of a snowball effect, isn't it? I was able to say that Lisa had done it, then naturally, people started referring each other and it gained some momentum.


I've asked all of those ladies if they've ever experienced imposter syndrome, 100% of them gave a resounding yes. This then gives permission for other people to feel that way, and to feel validated. You will look at these wonderful women that are all senior level or director level, and we aspire to be like them, or to navigate our careers in the way that they've navigated theirs. And yet, they're just human underneath it all. We might think that they've got it all together, and they probably do 90% of the time, but we're all human.


One of the other questions I've asked is: ‘do you need to be technical to be a technical leader?’ There’s always a mixed response to that, but what I've found is that women need to validate their education or their experience by getting a certificate or a degree in a certain subject, to be able to feel like they're a subject matter expert. You might have someone leading a technical team that hasn't grown up through that route and they're in that position because they're a good leader, not because they're an expert in the subject. Nine times out of ten, that leader has then gone on to do another degree or get themselves certified in a certain aspect so that they feel like they've got a right to be there. I wonder if our male counterparts would always feel the need to do that, or if they rely more on their experiences to validate themselves.


I've also asked about the importance of someone having your back or being a mentor, whether that's a formal or an informal person in your life. Resoundingly, people agree with the importance of someone nudging you and not letting you get away with not applying for that job. Or, likewise, pointing out your strengths when you're having a bit of a wobble. The importance of having those people around you is so powerful to have in your career.


We have also talked a lot about networking, and how that has changed due to the pandemic. Where you might have had your networks in the office or in the hospital, suddenly the absence of that has become very noticeable. Of course, the rise of Microsoft Teams conversations has made it more accessible to people to network. Before, you might have networked regionally and now you can network with no geographical barriers.


It's been the most enjoyable experience to interview all those ladies, and I think I've got an awful lot out of it. The feedback I've got has been brilliant. People have been saying: ‘Gosh, it's wonderful to read about that’. The experience of doing the interview in the first place has caused some of the women to reflect on the things that they're talking about. Someone said that she's put her mentoring programme into her team, because she forgot the importance. Another lady had been meaning to apply for one particular job for a long time, and the interview caused her to reflect and think ‘right, no time like the present’. She's working in that organization now, which was her dream job. That was just a lovely byproduct of doing the series.


Do you see people making conscious career changes into digital health roles, and if so, how?


I see that the NHS is willing to hire from outside. They are willing to accept people with a private sector background and people are now thinking that the NHS is a ‘destination’. I only now work in the NHS, I may have one lens on that.


Geography has really removed barriers. I was speaking earlier to the CIO over at Royal Cornwall. We discussed the fact that people were now going to be quite interested in working in the southwest, in Cornwall and Devon. But really, if you can do your job working from home, why would you not want to work in a place where you can have a better work-life balance, and maybe do some of the things in the evenings and weekends that would have been impossible if you lived in a city. I think that working in London in a traditional sense will probably reduce a little bit, and people will be moving out.


Not just the NHS, but an awful lot of private sector health tech businesses are saying they've changed their policies too. Everything's possible now with video conferencing. I think that's a real leveler in terms of removing those barriers.


Another thing that has removed barriers is the IR35 arrangements, which came into play in 2017 in the NHS, whereas you could still get those ‘outside’ IR35 contracts in the private sector. Initially, the talent didn't see the NHS as desirable. They would still work there, but it wasn't seen as a number one destination because most of the contracts were perceived to be inside IR35. Now that the playing field is leveled and IR35 has come into play in the private sector as well, we’re in a place where the NHS is just as attractive as some of other large organisations in the private sector.


How has the pandemic changed your thinking about how to approach, recruit and empower underrepresented candidates, and what advice do you have for those in hiring positions?


The most obvious change has been the working from home. Whether you live alone, you’ve got a partner or you've got a family to be looking after, you were suddenly thrown into your home as the workplace. That definitely had an effect on your work. I spoke to people who were living alone, and their interactions were only with people from a professional perspective. Then you have the other extreme where you're talking to people who had one or two children on their lap while they're trying to have a conversation with you, or having a meeting but needing to manage young children, or be dashing between homeschooling, as well as trying to do their jobs.


The way that we approached people really had to change. We were talking to people in the evenings or at weekends, because everything blurred rather than there being a demarcation between the start and the end of the day. We found people starting to work earlier, then spending more time with their family either caring for or educating their children in the middle of the day, and then doing more of their work in the evenings. We needed to change to meet those needs. Certainly, my colleagues were on hand to speak to people at whatever time was convenient for them.


A lot of people onboarded to organisations having never met in person, so you've got to be conscious about the experience that person is having and try even harder to make sure that their onboarding experience is a positive one than you would if it was in person.


But in terms of advice for hiring, people have got used to that flexibility of either working from home or not having to be in an office full time. Whether that's contract on an interim basis, or whether it's perm, from talking to people, it’s clear that they just want choices. They don't necessarily want to work in an office or at home full time. But they want to be able to work in a way that suits them. People feel like they've shown that it's all possible.


I would say to hirers that they still need to continue to be results focused, rather than focused on time spent in the workplace. If the deliverables are met, then it should be a tick and people should be really comfortable in trusting their teams, empowering them and letting them get on with the job. As we move out of the lockdown and into new ways of working, if they continue to be flexible, then access to talent will be there. More than it was before. I know that we used to manage talent pools on a geographical basis. We really mixed those talent pools and now we look at people on a national basis rather than local basis. So, ‘continue with the flexibility’ is the message that I would give to hirers.


Director of Evolutions Public Sector business with a focus on the NHS, Bernadette runs teams of consultants nationally who deliver digital interim talent into NHS organisations. She is an organiser of Her Plus Data Meet Up in Manchester, a female only women in data meet up group which works with the female data community in the North West to empower, mentor and support women with a passion for data and more broadly technology focused work. Bernadette is also a mentor for WIR - Women in Recruitment.


Disclaimer: The view and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and her guest contributor.



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