International Women's Day: Sonia Patel | Latest news

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Sonia Patel

International Women's Day: Sonia Patel

I was attracted to the digital world as it came naturally to me  – logical and technical thinking to resolve problems and an ability to be creative about solutions. But most importantly, seeing the value of the outcome to people.

I love the innovation as well – to do things in new and meaningful ways. This fits well with where we are with technology and data today it’s all about the way practical changes to improve to support the workforce, patients and citizens through digital to make our clinical care better.

I did my Masters in Bioinformatics. Originally, worked as a developer on the breaking the human genome project based out in Cambridge. My move to the NHS came with wanting to be closer to London. I started off my early NHS career with contracting jobs across acute & mental health trusts. I then took my first permanent NHS role as senior information analyst and have never looked back.

I’ve found that tech is still a man’s world, especially in the health service. Even though we have many female Silicon Valley CEOs and CIOs, it hasn’t translated into healthcare yet. To be honest, I think we need more women in tech; it needs that diversity of perspective. That’s what helps us to really respond to our users as individuals and understand the impact of what we do.

I recently discovered that I’m possibly only one of three BAME people in a NHS Chief Information Officer role in the country - I hadn’t realised that before until the Shuri network tweeted that this was their best count . I never normally think of myself as an Asian woman, but it does hit home when you realise that as a BAME woman in my role, I’m really one of a kind at the moment.

On occasions, I’ve walked into completely male rooms and for a moment it is daunting. But I’ve found that remaining true to why I’m there and what my aims are really helps. Most of all, it’s important for me to build rapport, but also work with a true level of professionalism.

I think that some women are put off from digital roles because it’s still portrayed in this very technical way. I like working through technical jargon – lots of people use it as a kind of security blanket, but we have to make the world of tech more accessible to all.

If you’re going to work in tech, have a clear vision, a meaningful narrative and above all resilience. You have to be able to keep going, but try things in different ways. Sometimes you can’t go on using the clear path you’d intended to take, but you find ways to make it happen. But however you deliver, it’s important to keep honest.

Very early in my career I was told, “Either you want to win or you want to be right, but you can’t be both.” I disagree – it’s not an either / or situation. There’s a way you can work with integrity, but still deliver.

On that note, I don’t have a formal leadership qualification and now finally through the NHS of the Digital Academy looking to formalise my leadership skills gathered and developed over the last 18 years. Tech leadership has traditionally been about your expertise and skills in tech. In honesty, this is the nub of the problem. Digital leadership is more about having a good understanding of the problems and the opportunities to deliver improvements. The best way to do this? - I love walking in people’s shoes. I spend a lot of time in our corporate and clinical spaces – our wards, the emergency departments – just understanding what our teams need and how they work.

My leadership career came about very quickly. I became a CIO at a Primary Care Trust when I was just thirty. In between then and now, I had my children, and I did learn and grow as a leader from having my kids and took up contracting roles as it provided the flexibility that I needed with young kids. Sometimes I wonder, would I have made it more quickly as an acute CIO if I hadn’t had the career break? The answer is probably yes, but actually for me at the time it wasn’t being a woman that I thought counted against me – it was my age. That said, we do lose a lot talented women in the workplace through child-bearing and rearing ages and we need to look at better models to support work-life balance.

When I’m very passionate about things, it’s natural to get personal. I used to go home and worry, ‘Why did this person say that?’ But one of the things I’ve got a lot better about over my career is that I’ve learned to depersonalise feedback and decisions.

I try to play to my strengths. Especially for women, I think lots of us have this feeling that if we’re in a meeting, we have to personally deliver every action. But a lot of it is about building the right team around you so that you use your strengths and they use theirs. That can be formally, if you’re in a leadership role, or informally, just by working closely with the people around you.

When I stepped back from my second maternity leave to a contracting opportunity that was hard to refuse, everyone wanted me to do a piece of work for them. I wanted to keep everyone happy, so I said yes to everything. I ended up exhausted and working round the clock to make it work. Now I know when to say no to things.

Coming back to work with after young children is very difficult. I remember getting up at 5am to nurse kids then leaving at 8am and then often not getting home until late so I couldn’t spend time with the kids. I’m lucky that I have a supportive family network but it is a constant juggling act.

I do sometimes feel guilty about the fact that my work means I spend less time with my children – but I wouldn’t be the person I am if I didn’t do it. It’s important to me that my children see their mother being productive in our society.

To my daughter, my mantra is that she can do anything she wants – she is strong, she is confident. I hope she sees that in her mum as well.

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