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16 April 2020

A Podcast of One's Own: Sally Davies on women in medicine

Julia Gillard talks to the former Chief Medical Officer for England in the latest podcast episode

Sally and Julia

Professor Dame Sally Davies, former Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for England, is Julia Gillard’s guest on the latest podcast episode. Dame Sally, who stepped down in October 2019, is the first and only woman to serve as CMO – the most senior government advisor on health matters for the nation. She is now Master of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge.

In the episode – the first in a special set of remote recordings during the Covid-19 lockdown – Davies discusses the role of CMO during times of national crisis and why she wouldn’t stand for it when labelled the “nation’s nanny”.

On preparing for crises like Covid-19, Davies said:

“It’s shown that we didn’t practice everything, we didn’t think through the testing well enough…it’s a question of how much planning can you do, and we did a lot and we did some really good planning, so I’m really proud of what we did. But then how fleet-of-foot can you be when it happens and how anticipatory can you be as you watch it develop.”

Davies believes communicating health and scientific advice to the public is hugely important at this time, but also a challenge. On the government’s strategy of having a daily press briefing, she said:

"Some ministers are lousy at it, they’re talking down to us, the public, or they’re bossy. Others are too nervous…it really is sorting them out. There are a couple I’m happy they’re in their roles.”

Davies is hugely thankful for the NHS, which she believes gives Britain an advantage when compared with the US in the fight against the coronavirus. She hopes the crisis will bring about changes in the importance we give to healthcare:

“I hope we come out recognising how important health services are. We shouldn’t have people pleading for resources for everyday care and then we get this on top of it…If you keep people healthy, then the economy does better.”


Davies trained as a doctor in the 1970s. One of a minority of women – just 13 out of 110 students on her medical course were female – she recalled some of the unacceptable things she had to put up with:

“When we did surface anatomy, I was made to stand on a stool and they drew up my legs where the muscles were, and I thought that was normal…It was actually quite a difficult environment, and I was definitely bottom of the pecking order [as a woman doctor].”

She also found her early experience of medicine “brutalising” because “we had a rationed health system”, meaning doctors had to choose which patients to save from life-threatening illnesses.

Davies draws the comparison with some of the “brutalising and harrowing things” medical staff are experiencing in the current crisis:

“I fear many of them will say, when it’s all over, ‘I can’t do this.’”

But she hopes if they do quit, they will come back “energised”, as she did after taking a break for four years in Madrid.

Returning to the profession, she forged a career as a consultant haematologist and then went into research before climbing the ranks as a government advisor in the civil service. Becoming Chief Medical Officer had never been on her mind until her predecessor suggested she go for it, to which her response was: “Why would I want it?”

She explains the differences inthe way men and women often approach these roles:

“I do meet young men – I’ve not met a young women actually – who say to me: ‘I want to be a Chief Medical Officer’…Perhaps you should not only enjoy the journey but recognise that it’s an issue of timing, of who else is going for it…and you may not make it. But they’re invested in the office. I wasn’t.”

When she did decide to go for it, she “played it quite powerfully”, going straight to the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health to inform him that she was applying because her “present role reports to the CMO, and I don’t respect any of the men who you are going to shortlist”. She also insisted she would keep the research portfolio worth several billion pounds that she managed in her current role.

When she was appointed, she was keen to bring a “different style”:

“What all my team said was I would get to a conclusion quite quickly, but if they had a better argument, I would shift. I set out to make evidence my USP and to be collaborative and debating, and then, if a decision needed taking, I would take it.”

As the first female CMO, Davies felt a lot of pressure “to be a flagbearer as a woman”. She was at the receiving end of gendered treatment, labelled the “nation’s nanny”, which was “quite difficult”.

But she stood up to it where she could, including during a famous incident on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, where she challenged presenter Nick Robinson when he referred to her as Chief Nanny:

“I was so angry…I said ‘I think you’re being gendered; I think that’s unacceptable, and I won’t have it’”.

Discussing some of the issues that hold back women in the medical profession, Davies talked about the gender pay gap that exists in healthcare, despite the workforce being mostly made up of women:

“One of the things that worries me is why do we see a small number of men coming in, but proportionately many more men in the managerial and leadership roles. What can we do to help those women who could do it but haven’t recognised it come through?”

“There’s already work on arguing to our government that nurses need to be better paid, and I hope that care workers and other people will have a better deal going forward…we need a fairer society…maybe we can relight a fire from the embers of Covid.”

You can find this and previous episodes of A Podcast of One’s Own, on all the main podcast platforms. 

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