Smashing the stereotypes associated with being a Muslim working mum in a leadership role

Lead Pharmacist at Dudley Integrated Health & Care NHS Trust and Programme Director at a Higher Education Institute, Sarah Baig speaks about the challenges she has faced professionally as a working mum-of-three and a Muslim female in a leadership role. “It’s a triple whammy!” she laughs.

Based in Dudley, Black Country, one of the most deprived areas of the country, Sarah leads the pharmacist team in a network of 11 practices at the the first Community Trust in the UK to integrate pharmacy with primary care and other services as an integrated care system.

As a deprived area, Black Country has poor population health outcomes and low life expectancy. Working collaboratively as an integrated care system, they aim "to deliver on population health improvement, medicines optimisation and medicines management across the networks to help reduce these health inequalities and improve patient outcomes."

Sarah’s South Asian heritage is a plus for improving patient access. She is fluent in the Urdu and Punjabi dialects, enabling her to better engage with patients. “It’s especially useful for the ethnic minority communities,” she says. “They like having a practitioner who’s able to converse in the same language. I have a special interest in diabetes and we have a lot of patients from ethnic backgrounds with diabetes. In my experience these patients tend to be more concordant with their medication and empowered about their condition as I am able to converse with them in their native language. It also helps that I'm from the same local area.”

Throughout her fifteen-year career, Sarah has weathered negative stereotypes about the parenting responsibilities of Muslim, South-Asian heritage women. She believes it has made it hard for her to adopt more senior roles and to progress in her career.

“When I have tried to apply for more senior positions," she explains, "at times I have been discouraged because of the fact that I have children. I have inevitably had to take multiple side steps in my career to get where I want to be. In my previous role, I came up against a glass ceiling where I felt that I could not progress any further, and it was frustrating. Although more qualified than my peers, I watched other none-BAME female colleagues, often those that I had developed, bypass me because they were in full-time work."

Sarah was forced to make a difficult decision to leave her clinical role and change sectors to progress in her career: "Ultimately," she says, "this was one of the reasons I went into academia and primary care. Senior colleagues kept telling me, ‘You’re a mum, you’ve got children, how will you manage a full-time job in a leadership role?’

"I have always had to push boundaries,” Sarah continues. "Culturally I feel I am expected to be the mother and the carer, while the man is naturally perceived to be the provider. On top of this, there is a negative perception that Muslim women are controlled and people see this as a stereotype. For me, it’s about breaking stereotypes and pushing those boundaries.”

To explode these stereotypes, freedom of choice is essential. Freedom to study, freedom to do a particular job, freedom to be a role model and lead by example. "There should be no right or wrong," says the pharmacist. "In an ideal world there are no stereotypes.”

Women need freedom of choice to overcome stereotypes. Free will and positivity combined with positive female role models, in the immediate family and in the wider professional networks, will enable women to aspire to leadership roles: “My children feel really proud of me because their mum works in the NHS," acknowledges Sarah. "I’m proud that I’m a true role model for them. I hope that other women of South Asian Heritage and BAME backgrounds will aspire to be in leadership positions in the future.”

This article and photo originally appeared on Women in the NHS


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