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Women in Leadership in the HSE

Female HSE staff are being urged not to let fear keep them in their comfort zone and discourage them from pursuing career advancement.

Two of the most senior women in the HSE management team have shared their experiences of moving up the ranks within one of the biggest organisations in the country and encourage other women not to put limits on themselves.

It comes as International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.

Both Anne O’Connor, National Director for Community Operations, and Mary Walshe, Chief Officer, Community Health Organisation Dublin North City and County, started out as clinicians but now find themselves holding very senior offices.

Anne O'ConnorAnne trained as an Occupational Therapist in England. After working there for a number of years, she returned to Ireland in 1995. Two years later, she took on her first managerial role – as an Occupational Therapy manager in mental health. She continued to rise within the HSE, taking on Grade 8 and General Manager roles. Before she took on her new role in Community Operations, she was National Director for Mental Health.

Anne said her training as an Occupational Therapist gave her a solid foundation in the organisational skills needed to be a manager.

“Occupational Therapists have to be very organised and practical. My training taught me to be solution-focused and enable people to enact change. Developing these skills has been vital to helping me perform at my best in a management role.”

She insisted that, while her clinical background was a huge benefit, it wasn’t a necessity for her role and believes a good balance of skills at senior level is more important.

“I have a clinical background but would have had no experience in finance, for example. If we just had clinical people in management, we would have lots of caring people but probably wouldn’t be able to function. It’s more beneficial that management is made up of people from a variety of backgrounds,” said Anne.

Mary began her career as a nurse, returning to Ireland from two years working in Australia in 1989 to work in the neuroscience department in Beaumont Hospital. She held Director of Nursing posts in Peamount Hospital in Newcastle, Co Dublin and Connolly Hospital, becoming Hospital Manager in Blanchardstown. She stayed in that role for 10 years, before moving into the community sector three and a half years ago. She took up her current role in CHO Dublin North City and County in June of last year.

She said she never set out to become a manager. Mary Walshe

“It wasn’t something I thought about when I started out. It has been more of a natural progression through the roles,” Mary admitted. “I have been very fortunate along the way to have managers that encouraged me in my professional development. I have a degree in nursing and a masters in quality and patient safety. People encouraged me and gave me the confidence in my own abilities.”
She too found that her nursing skills gave her a great foundation for the rest of her career.

“I am passionate about my job. I have learned to become a good communicator and try to instil in others a positive outlook on things – to look at what we can do and not what we can’t.”

Neither women felt that being a woman was ever a disadvantage to them when it came to moving up the ladder within the HSE.

“I don’t think being a woman has ever been a factor for me. I have always had a good confidence in my abilities and put myself forward when opportunities came up. I am lucky to have a supportive family and my situation at home meant it was possible for me to take on these more demanding roles,” said Anne.

“The fact that I had good mentors along the way also made a big difference. One of those once told me that you must lift your gaze as you go along in your career, to see the opportunities as they present themselves.”

She insisted that a way must be found to encourage women into management roles.

“I think, as women, we sometimes put limits on ourselves. Childcare is usually the biggest issue when it comes to career advancement for women and they feel like they can’t apply for the jobs when they come up,” said Anne.

“If I had one bit of advice for women in the HSE, it would be simply to apply for things. You should always put your hand up. The worst thing that could happen is that you don’t get the job. And don’t worry about how you will manage the practicalities of doing the job - you don’t have to make any decisions until you are offered the job. Then, who knows, you might be able to make it suit your situation.”

Mary agreed that work-life balance is usually the biggest hurdle in women’s paths.

“When you work at a senior level , you acknowledge that the work in not just 9-5, but many areas are flexible and you can juggle the work around your commitments at home,” she said.

Despite a huge level of responsibility and busy workload, both women are enjoying the work that they do.

“I now work at a very senior level , in charge of a budget of €680m, with a staff of 3,500, but I love it and I love getting the opportunity to work with like-minded people that continue to put their commitment to the public first. The HSE has so many wonderful people and it can be a fabulous workplace. Some of my best friends are the people I met on my first day in Beaumont back in 1989,” revealed Mary.

Anne admitted that the biggest leap for her was the one to Grade 8 which is largely an administrative role.

“It takes a lot of getting used to as it is very different to working as a clinician but it has its own rewards. I am in an important role now and that brings a lot of responsibilities and challenges. But there is so much variety in what you do from day to day. You never get the chance to be bored. And even if something is difficult, you learn from it and earn an enormous sense of achievement from it.

I think we all go into our career to make a difference in the lives of the service users and I am incredibly lucky to be in a position to enact positive change.”

Outside of her busy schedule, Anne relaxes with her husband and three children.

“I enjoy sports, walking, travel and my pets - and that all helps me to relax. I find myself on the side-lines of camogie pitches most weekends and basically acting as a taxi for the children. But I am good at switching off from work when I am at home. Because my husband often works weekends, it means I have to be disciplined about not letting my work creep into the weekends. When I am at home, my family gets my full attention.”

Mary is a keen guitar player and has just completed night classes learning to play the ukulele.

“I have great family and friends and they help me relax after a busy week of work,” she added.