Back in 2019, Claire Bucher was part of the first cohort of our Minerva leadership development programme for women working in digital health.

We caught up with Claire to find out how she’s used her Minerva skills to develop her career and confidence since graduating.

Tell us how you got into healthcare and what you do in your current role.

I graduated 32 years ago as a nurse, and since then I have built an eclectic portfolio of roles, ranging from clinical posts in both community and acute care, to research and project management. I also spent 11 years teaching undergraduate nursing and midwifery at a university in Northern Ireland.

I now work as the Assistant Director of Digital Health and Nursing for the Digital Health and Care Northern Ireland (DHCNI) team, which is aligned to the Department of Health in Northern Ireland.

Have you noticed a change in the representation of women in leadership positions since you began working in health and care?

The world of nursing and midwifery is dominated by women, and it is commonplace for women to occupy leadership positions. But when I moved into digital leadership, the landscape was very different; I was one of very few female leaders in the whole of Northern Ireland. Since then, the situation has improved.

In recent years, the requirement for trusts to appoint Chief Nursing Information Officers (CNIO) has heightened the awareness of the need for female digital leaders across the board, with women holding four out of the five CNIO roles in Northern Ireland. However, we still have a long way to go if we are going to level the playing field and achieve equal representation in leadership roles less traditionally associated with women.

How did you hear about the Minerva programme and when did you sign up?

Believe it or not, Anne [Cooper] and I used to work together. There was a merry band of around six of us trying to drive the digital nursing agenda forwards in the UK, as part of the eHealth Forum in the Royal College of Nursing – so we go back a long way, longer than either of us would be willing to admit!

I heard about the programme through Anne, and I was part of the first cohort in 2019. Of course, this was before the madness of the pandemic when the course was conducted entirely face-to-face. I would fly over to Leeds in the morning and back home in the evening after each session.

What did you enjoy most about the Minerva programme?

Without trying to sound cliché, it was much more than a leadership programme. It was absolutely fantastic. Over the years, I’ve attended a number of leadership programmes, and this one was completely different – it was all about thinking about yourself as a person before thinking about yourself as a leader. Your characteristics. Your authenticity. It was completely different to anything I had experienced before; the content was completely unique.

Another thing I really appreciated about the programme was that it made me reflect on my journey, and how it has shaped me into the person I am today. Minerva made me realise that my experiences have equipped me with the clinical and digital expertise to be a talented female leader, and I’d never really thought about it like that before.

What can be done to level the playing field and support more women working in digital health?

People see the word “digital” as synonymous with technical expertise, or that you need to have technical expertise to understand everything about a product or a system. And, I think that perception deters a lot of women from joining the industry.

But if you think about transformation in digital health, it is much more about human skills than it is technical. Digital health leadership is about humility, adaptability and the ability to engage with people.

To change this, for me, it’s all about education. We need to educate women about STEM and get them thinking about STEM as a viable career path. We also need to address the lack of female role models in the industry, which serves as a barrier in its own right. Without them, girls lack inspiration and an identifiable route to pursue a career in digital health.

What are the biggest blockers for women aspiring to become leaders in digital health?

Confidence. Women need to have confidence in themselves to apply for more senior positions, and a key part of the Minerva programme is giving them that confidence. During the programme you are encouraged to understand who you are and what you can bring to the table, in a powerful and positive way. Once you have a grasp of that, you feel more empowered to apply for new positions and do things differently according to your strengths.

What did you learn from the modules on the programme?

We had a number of sessions on strengths and we did the Clifton Strengths Assessment, which was at the core of the entire programme. These sessions helped us to understand our individual abilities and how they impacted upon our working practices. It was eye opening. Once you discover what your top three strengths are, you have moments of realisation where you go “oh yes, that’s why I am doing it this way”, which can help you to identify problems before they’ve even occurred.

Another key area of the programme was on purpose and self-reflection. We each wrote self-reflective diaries, and it was a very safe environment to speak openly. I think the reason everyone felt comfortable sharing our diary entries with one another is that we all had something in common: we were all women and at a certain point in our careers although the group was made up of women from a variety of ages and backgrounds. It was really emotional at times – we shared a lot.

We also did a lot of work on value and conflict, which centred around your personal values and what happens when those values conflict with the people you work with, the people you are leading, or the system you are working in. Learning how to deal with that was very, very important.

How has the Minerva programme impacted you professionally since graduating?

I want to pick out a session we did on service design because it has been really important in my work and what I am working on now. The session was all about the importance of understanding your stakeholders and how digital affects people at each stage of the transformation journey. We essentially created a mock service design project, and it really struck a chord with me. Perhaps that’s because I come from an operational nursing background, and that I have experienced situations where staff feel like digital is being thrust upon them.

It was invaluable to learn about involving people and making sure you ask the right questions, so that the service you’re designing meets the needs of the people it is supposed to be serving. Beyond that, the programme helped me to better understand my relationship with colleagues, and how I am perceived by them as a member of the team. I’m also much more mindful of the women I work with, so that they feel comfortable and empowered to maximise their abilities in the workplace.

Have you kept in contact with the people you met on the course?

Everyone on the first cohort of Minerva keeps in touch via WhatsApp, but because of the pandemic, we’re yet to meet up again face-to-face. There are plans afoot for a get-together in 2023 and we’re all really looking forward to it. It has been so interesting to keep up to date with everyone’s journey since the programme ended, and to see how it has helped them to develop professionally and land new opportunities.

What would you say to someone who is considering signing up for the programme?

Like all programmes, you get out of it what you put in but if you aspire to be a leader in digital health, then go for it. In my opinion, you can’t teach people how to be a leader, it’s something you are born with. You can’t sit somebody down in a classroom, teach them about leadership styles and then expect them to go off and be a leader. It has to be intrinsic to a person.

But very often people, particularly women, need the support and confidence to lead – it needs to be brought out of them – and that’s what Minerva does. It makes you reflect on yourself as a person, and why you think you would be a good leader, giving you the confidence in your own ability to go and do it.

Learn more about the Minerva programme here.