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Winning Wairarapa wahine

Wahine Connect mentor Dr Cath Becker. PHOTO/SOUMYA BHAMIDIPATI

Mentoring programme wins at health volunteer awards

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Wairarapa women were part of a nationwide mentoring network which won outstanding community team at the 2020 Minister of Health Volunteer Awards.

Wahine Connect provides peer support to women working in the health sector.

Wairarapa Skin Clinic director Dr Cath Becker has been a mentor with Wahine Connect since its earliest days.

She was training a general practice registrar at the time, so becoming a mentor seemed like “a natural progression”.

“I had an ad-hoc mentor myself, and that was probably the most useful bit of help I’ve ever had.”

Over the past few years, she’s mentored about seven women.

Sometimes it was about their personal lives, sometimes professional, often both.

“One mentee was wanting to know about timing a baby around the postgrad work I had already done,” Becker said.

Another mentee was interested in discussing how having a husband who also worked in the health sector might impact her professional growth.

“You don’t want to be hiding under the bushel of your husband for your whole life.”

Becker is a specialist in skin cancer medicine, but also worked as a GP for about 20 years and has surgical training.

“We’ve got an amazing network of women in medicine in New Zealand,” she said, “It’s just stunning.”

“It’s just dawning on me that I’m senior,” Becker said.

Now it was time for her to “keep the ladder down”.

“I’m happy to give it back.”

Lifting up other wahine Maori was particularly important as they were underrepresented in the sector, she said.

“Being a Maori doctor in a small community, there’s a lot of expectations on you,” she said.

“I would never say no to any other doctor that needed help, man or woman.”

The structure of Wahine Connect was important because it took the guesswork out of a mentor-mentee relationship.

“The mentees know that it’s absolutely fine to send an email,” Becker said.

Wahine Connect began when founder Juliet Rumball-Smith posted on a ‘Women in medicine’ Facebook page in 2017, asking whether people would be interested in a formal mentorship programme.

“I was actually working overseas in the States, and it was the first time that I’d ever had a female boss.

It was the first time that I’d personally experienced that,” she said.

“And I was like, that’s just so weird. Most medical students are women now, why haven’t I seen this more?”

She was “completely inundated” with messages from women wanting to be mentors and mentees.

“People working rurally, in particular, were wanting support,” she said.

“From that, I thought there’s something here.”

Rumball-Smith began a pilot for Wahine Connect. It became a registered charity a year later, in 2018.

“I thought even if I can just connect a handful of women, it’ll be worth it.”

Today the organisation has just over 430 mentors and almost 250 mentees, and was “growing daily”.

Mentors outnumbered mentees because there were so many specialisations and niches within the health sector. New mentors were actively approached if no existing mentors suited a mentee’s requirements.

Rumball-Smith described the mentors as “super-busy professional women”.

“Even though they’ve been on the front line of covid, they’ve been doing more mentoring than ever before.”

Women in health were more likely to experience burnout, presenteeism, and sexual harassment, she said.

“Women are underrepresented in positions of seniority in health,” she said.

“Our health workforce is 85 per cent women; we are the health system.”

Mentorship helped to build the capability of the workforce, which would eventually improve patient outcomes, she said.

While all mentoring was good, it was helpful to have access to female mentors who faced the same stressors unique to women, she said.

“Also, professionally, there will have been barriers for women who have achieved positions of seniority that are maybe more relevant.”

“There’s been a lot of research to show that being a mentor is positive for the career development of the mentor too,” Rumball-Smith said.

“Given what we know about how mentoring benefits the mentor and given that there are these inequities, it makes sense that we concentrate the benefits to women.”

Eventually, she would like to be able to support women from a broader range of professions.

“It’s really around creating a place where you can share your own lived experiences.”

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