The Power of Advocates and Supporters
Gemma Howlett MCPara, member of the College of Paramedics Diversity Steering Group introduces Nicola Hunt MCPara, Chair of London Ambulance Service (LAS) Women’s Network.
As part of my work with the College’s Diversity Steering Group I have had the great pleasure of talking to, and hearing stories from a variety of truly inspirational people, for which I will be forever grateful. For previous International Women’s Day celebrations, I have interviewed Yvonne Ormston, one of the very few women to have held the title of Chief of an ambulance service and Becky Connelly, a true advocate for equality and diversity, who is a pivotal member of the Diversity Steering Group. This year, I got to interview another exceptional woman, Nicola Hunt, the Chair of the newly-formed London Ambulance Service Women’s Network, and one of the first HCPC apprentice board members. Hers is a story of phenomenal determination, difficult circumstances, the overcoming of adversity and one that showcases the importance of role models and champions. It highlights the pivotal part played by the people around us who dare us to be better, who help us in different ways at different times in our journeys. The people who have such a profound impact on you that they not only help you but prompt a desire in you to pay it forward, for you to go on and be the person in someone’s corner, encouraging them to reach their potential, to reach for big things.
Nicola joined the London Ambulance Service in July 2005, a week after the 7/7 bombings. While some people may have questioned their decision after witnessing such a horrible event, Nicola knew that this was the career for her. She was excited to start and threw herself into the role with great passion and enthusiasm. The joining age at the time was 21 so Nicola had some time from leaving school before she could embark on her career. She never considered university, growing up in a socio-economically deprived part of London, it just wasn’t something that people like her did, or so she thought at the time. Nicola had at the time undiagnosed dyslexia and ADHD so found some aspects of education challenging due to a lack of the right support. No one in Nicola’s family had been to university so it was not something that she gave any thought to. Instead, Nicola enrolled in a local college and did a BTEC diploma in public services. She joined as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and loved the role; she remembers the feeling of excitement and thrill whenever the emergency phone rang. She always looked up to the paramedics in the service and hoped that one day, she too would reach that level. In 2014, Nicola finally took the plunge and successfully enrolled on to a paramedic course, nine years after first joining the service. By the time Nicola had earned a place on the programme she had two young children and it was difficult to balance the demands of study and work with being a mum. Nicola hired a nanny, which took up more than 50 per cent of her monthly pay check, but she felt it was one of the only options she had.
Nicola achieved her paramedic qualification and was proud of her achievements but with over 10 years’ experience in the ambulance service she had started to feel restless, frustrated by what she felt was a lack of opportunity. She had a performance and development review with a team leader and discussed how she felt. She had had enough and felt like she was going nowhere. Her relationship with her children’s dad had broken down, in part due to the sacrifices she’d had to make and the amount of time she’d had to dedicate to her dream of becoming a paramedic. She felt like a victim. This meeting turned out to be pivotal in what Nicola went on to do next. The team leader listened and then asked one question, ‘what are you going to do about it?’ Taken aback initially, the question was a good one. Nicola discussed her desire to go into education, she wanted to help students in general but particularly ones like her, ones with learning difficulties, ones who needed more or just different support to achieve what they were capable of. If she wanted to do these things then she was going to have to go after the opportunities and put herself in the mix. Shortly afterwards, and supported by LAS, she enrolled on her BSc top-up degree with the University of Cumbria. Racked with self-doubt, initially Nicola questioned her decision to take part and didn’t really believe that she would be able to complete the programme.
But thanks to the truly supportive approach of team and course leaders Nicola excelled, proving to herself that she wasn’t the problem; she just needed fair and reasonable adjustments, support that suited her, and a course team that encouraged her. It felt good, it felt like for the first time the sky was the limit. Sadly though, fate once again conspired against Nicola. Her mother, one of her main inspirations, a strong woman who had grown up in tough circumstances, and who struggled to make ends meet while striving to offer the best for her children, became terminally ill. Nicola studied one of the modules on her top up degree at her mother’s palliative care bedside.
Nicola’s mother died with Nicola and her sister sat at her bedside. The first inspiring and strong woman in her life was gone but had left a determination and fierce spirit in Nicola, one that has clearly helped overcome much adversity and will continue to do so when needed, I am sure. Nicola started her longed-for role in education. The woman who as a school leaver, did not think university was for her, now had a first-class honours degree and was starting on her postgraduate certificate of education. Which it is important to say, she passed with flying colours also.
3rd November 1947 - 23rd November 2019
The journey into education also led to another pivotal person in Nicola’s journey. Whilst working in the education department Nicola met one of the senior directors of the organisation. Nicola recalls being on a Teams call from home with senior leader, Tina Ivanov one day (Tina no longer works at LAS) and her daughter asked her who she was. Nicola said “this is my boss, one of my big bosses” and her daughter said “but she’s not a man, she can’t be the boss.” Society, the world, and her experiences up to now had told Nicola’s daughter that bosses were men. There had been no specific conversations on this in the household as far as Nicola could remember, it had just been absorbed. This was something that both Nicola and the director wanted to address. A video arrived for Nicola’s daughter from the leader telling her that if she wanted to be the big boss one day then she absolutely could, and she should aim high. What a role model for both Nicola and her daughter. It is much easier to be what you can see, which is why representation really does matter. The version of what is possible, what is perceived as ‘normal’ is set very young and can take a long time to redress. Nicola sought counsel from this senior figure, voicing her frustrations, her want for change and her desire to progress. The woman advised that she try and get some board experience, to start to understand how decisions are made. This was a clear goal, but Nicola initially had no idea how to achieve it.
Then by a very happy coincidence, the HCPC launched their innovative and trailblazing apprentice board member position. The HCPC were actively looking for people with no previous board experience and would provide mentorship from senior council members for the apprentices, they wanted them to be actively involved in public interest matters (HCPC, 2020). The advice was to gain experience on a board and now here was the opportunity. Nicola applied for the role and was surprised to be interviewed by an all-female panel, including the chair of the council, Christine Elliot. Nicola recalls being notably taken aback by the panel, her image of a board was typically male.
The board that had embraced her, that had accessibility and opportunity in mind when they launched the apprenticeship scheme, was clearly different from what was the norm. They wanted to provide access to the seat of power for those who would not normally be granted it. Maybe because they were women, maybe because they too had faced obstacles, barriers, limited opportunities, a tough ride to even get to the glass ceiling, let alone smash through it. Whatever the motivation, it provided Nicola with an amazing chance and experience that she embraced wholeheartedly and one that she was not going to let pass her by.
The experience allowed for a view into decision-making, how complex the systems are, the considerations that need to be made, the processes that need to be followed. It was a world away from Nicola’s original assumptions and perceptions. Every member of the board gave her time, understanding, they listened to Nicola’s views and wanted to understand her story. Nicola was given a mentor, another woman to help navigate her through the process, to help her make the most of the opportunity. Nicola feels strongly that due to the female representation on the board it helped her feel seen, it helped her feel heard. They all had very different stories, some were privileged in terms of education, and opportunities, some were not.
Nicola’s preconceived ideas and assumptions about who got to sit on a board were all challenged. It stands to reason that if more boards were diverse then the more people would be willing to involve themselves in them, to want to be part of the decision-making processes, to feel enabled to do so, this would inevitably help to move away from white middle class male dominated boards. Nicola learned for the first time how to run a formal meeting, how it is formatted, how board papers are used and why they are needed, an understanding of the thoroughness, and therefore perceived slowness of decisions. When her year-long apprenticeship ended Nicola was back on the lookout for the next opportunity, the next position where she could make a positive change.
As Nicola explained, the HCPC apprenticeship had offered her an experience that she may never have gone for if she had not been encouraged by that team leader to change her situation, by being motivated and pushed by the senior leader in her organisation, she would not have had access to unless some of the actual and perceived barriers had been removed, if the welcome sign had not been so visibly put up. I hope that more organisations start to embrace this practice and find ways to welcome all onto boards and into senior roles by actively removing barriers. Achieving her academic qualifications, getting out of the rut she had found herself in and making positive changes and embarking on the role helped Nicola in many ways. She has embraced her ADHD and understands it more, she now views it as her superpower, it makes her more determined to achieve, when she sets her mind on something she will do everything she can to get it. The role with the HCPC also helped build her confidence, it helped her see her worth, that she was important, she did and should have a voice. The opportunity encouraged Nicola to not only want to be involved in the network but gave her the confidence to want to chair it.
The Women’s Network had been started by Alex Ulrich, an LAS APP in critical care paramedic. She was unable to stay on as chair due to taking maternity leave just after its start, but it is thanks to her that it was up and running. She is a pivotal part in the network’s story and Nicola and the rest of the network members, are extremely grateful for her efforts in getting it off the ground. The Women’s Network and the other staff networks in the LAS have been hugely supported by London Ambulance Service Chief Executive, Daniel Elkeles. He has provided support of the networks, allowing people allocated work time to carry out network activities. Allies such as Daniel and other senior figures are vitally important in the fight for equality in any organisation. Six out of thirteen members of LAS’s Board are female. It is heartening to see this representation in ambulance services now. As Nicola observes the support and recognition of the work carried out by network chairs and members is vital, it is a tough road fighting the fight without it, it can lead to anger and frustration, a feeling of hopelessness, it can lead to brilliant people being unable to carry on anymore as the sacrifices become too great.
It is early days for the network but Nicola has two key aims that she feels are vital for it to work: the safety of women in the ambulance service and career progression of women. Nicola stresses the importance of women feeling and being safe at work, protected from sexual or gender harassment and feels that these issues run at the core of several problems for women nationally in the ambulance sector. Women being represented in roles at senior level, is also high on her agenda.
Women’s networks across the country need to be at the forefront of this fight. Shining a light on the problem, raising awareness to senior management through network channels, encouraging women to call it out. However, and it is very important to point out, it is not just a problem that women have to solve, that is treading into the realms of asking women to wave down buses for help if they feel in danger rather than addressing the perpetrators.
Men and women need to be at the heart of the solution at all levels of the ambulance service. But these solutions need to be coordinated, strategised and informed by women. Nicola also wants to help ensure that women have the same opportunities as men in the ambulance service, creating an even field, where all women have the same chances. Pushing for more flexible working opportunities in line with the NHS Flex movement. Challenging culture, enabling a culture that allows people to call out unacceptable and inappropriate behaviour. There is a long list of things to do but I am excited to see what happens next, to see what Nicola and the network can achieve and I urge any women reading this in LAS or in any other service to please join your women’s network, there is strength in numbers. If there isn’t a network in your area, start one. It is important that women have a space to coordinate, to lead, to make things better for all women. There needs to be more opportunities for women, whether we like it or not we still have to fight for these things, the playing field is still far from equal. Men, we need your help too, find out what you can do to help, how you can be an ally.
I am sure our profession will be enriched by these improvements, but we need everyone to help. #BeTheChange