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by Deirdre Stewart
Published on March 5, 2017

From the moment I completed my professional training as a general and psychiatric nurse in Dublin, Ireland, my dream was to work abroad and make a difference in the industry, not only as a healthcare professional but also as a woman.

My introduction to the Middle Eastern healthcare market was in 1985, where I started as a staff nurse at Al Ain Hospital followed by several years working in various city hospitals. With the ambition to try something new, I successfully gained the role as a Health and Hygiene Consultant at Meridien Hotels Middle East. I’ll never forget what the hiring manager, Jane, told me when I asked why I was chosen; “because I saw potential in you, of which you were not even aware”. This comment changed my outlook forever. I had spent years striving to make a real difference in the healthcare system and this recognition gave me the confidence to push boundaries and go beyond my comfort zone. After a lot of hard work and tenacity, thirty years on, I am now a Senior Director and Chief Nursing Officer at Cerner Middle East, impacting healthcare across the Middle East, through the successful adoption of Health Information Technology.

If I was asked how women today can be encouraged to be leaders in healthcare, an important element is identifying those who have potential and nurturing that. At the 18th Global Women in Leadership (WIL) Economic Form in 2016, Hoda Abou Jamra, founding partner of TVM Capital Healthcare Partners and founding chair of the GCC chapter of the 30% Club, spoke about the importance of young girls being mentored, and I couldn’t agree more. The raw material and desire to succeed and make a difference has to be there. Our job is then to grow and sponsor those traits.

While females make up a large number of the nursing community, locally and across the globe, we cannot ignore the disparity number of male and female leaders in the healthcare sector as a whole – I believe there is a significant amount of scope here for females to climb the ranks into executive management role across all the industry sectors

Many female leaders have already made significant contributions within the nursing environment in the Middle East – they pave the way for others across all healthcare divisions including MedTech and government organisations. If I look at inspirational leaders I have met over the years here, Ms. Ayesha AlMehri, current President of the Emirates Nursing Association, has played a significant role in strengthening the role of nursing, and creating a positive vision for the future; Dr Fatima Al Rifai, Director of the Department of Nursing at the Ministry of Health, widely regarded as “The Mother of Nursing” in the UAE has been fundamental in driving the provision of high quality Nursing Education and care in the region. It is also important to mention the late Salma Al Sharhan, the first Emirati woman to take up a career in nursing. Mrs Sharhan overcame gender stereotypes and inspired a new generation of local female medical practitioners. As a shining beacon in nursing, her legacy still motivates thousands of young women into the profession.

These women, and many more, prove that women have a lot to offer in healthcare leadership, yet there still appears to be a gender gap within the workplace globally. The 2016 Women in the Workplace report, which examined gender disparity in companies showed only 43% of women think becoming a top executive will significantly improve their ability to impact the business, compared to 51% of men. The same report also highlighted a lack of confidence in females, with half of females reporting they interact with a company leader weekly, compared to 62% of men.

While the outlook for GCC is positive – more women have advanced into leadership positions in the past decade than ever before – ensuring gender parity in senior positions is crucial for the growth of workplaces, particularly in traditionally male dominated fields such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).

In health, costs are tight, time is limited and patient welfare comes first. It is arguably skills, not gender, which matters, when it comes to the provision of high quality patient care. However, Jane, who interviewed me all those years ago showed, it is important that women in healthcare also take the time to stimulate and encourage each other to do more.

I personally lead a workforce which includes clinical strategists and clinical sales associates. These positions are rewarding and challenging in equal measure, but I see my associates (mostly female) joining forces to make a positive impact on health and care each day. I believe that instilling an ethos of collaboration, partnership and determination in the workforce will make a real difference to the way they will see their futures, and will hopefully diminish the gap between male and female leaders in our industries.