Age is just a number - or is it?

Fri 18th Jan – by Lizzy Stillibrand - Senior Programme Lead

Written as evidence of lived experience for the Building Leadership for Inclusion workstream, Senior Programme Lead Lizzy Stillibrand tells us more about leadership as a young female within the NHS...

I am an NHS leader.  A blunt statement but one I have to remind myself of as I sit down to write this story, in actual fact I’m often described as a “senior leader” something I find even harder to remember.  My experience of leadership in the NHS has been variable; I’ve worked with great leaders, just about alright leaders and some pretty awful ones.  All of this has had an effect on the kind of leader I am now, where I came from and where I want to be.

I am a woman.  Keeping with the theme of stating the obvious, this is another label I have to actively keep in mind.  I initially thought this is what I’d talk about, my lived experience as a female leader in the NHS, but in reality this has never been a big issue for me personally.  It’s always present and gendered assumptions of characteristics, strengths and even potential have played a part in my career so far as well as the leadership approaches I have experienced and enacted myself.  

I am 30 years old.  This one is a little different, I don’t often forget how old I am but I do forget that for other people this statement might be more accurately written as “I am only 30 years old”.  A seemingly innocent four letter word, only, but it comes with a lot of unspoken meaning and it’s that I’d like to talk about.

I am an NHS leader, I am a woman and I am 30 years old.    

Unsurprisingly this is the oldest I have been (so far) and to me, the 30 years of life I have under my belt feel pretty long and full.  In my career I haven’t felt like I’m missing an intrinsic secret ingredient only revealed to those over a certain age.  

What I have felt however is the need to prove this to others I’ve come across.  Sometimes it is exactly that, a feeling.  Sometimes it’s a direct comment, or a little four letter word used as a qualifier.  Either way, the result is the same, because of my age I’m left defending my competence, my potential or even my reason for being round the metaphorical table.

When I was a Graduate Trainee, I was expected to be young and a bit naïve.  You’re a trainee, doing a job but not a real one as a proper manager or leader , you’re an emerging leader, a trainee.  In fact, I was able to use my comparatively young age to my advantage, asking the daft questions and using my lack of experience to learn as much I could in the two short years I was on the scheme.  

Even though I was able to find a positive, I would still rather it was not an issue.  The time spent figuring out how I’d work with and around a perceived hindrance to me performing well could have been better spent looking at something I had any influence over – or even something related to my development as a leader and not just the normal ageing process of a human being.

And this has continued to be a theme throughout my career – my age was an issue.  Whether for good or bad, it was still there.  It was noticed.  I had to actively think about how to make up for the fact that I was only twenty something, that I’d only been in the NHS since 2009 and that I’ll understand when I’m older or maybe when I’ve been doing it for a bit longer.  

I felt frustrated that I was often dismissed based on something as arbitrary as age and if I’m honest, slightly offended that people thought it was okay to comment on my age.  There hasn’t been a single time in my work life where I’ve thought it would be okay say “aren’t you a bit old to be doing a job like that”.

It is less of a problem than it has been in some of my other jobs; I’m older (which helps), I work in a different environment and a different organisation.  However it is still an issue.  I’ve still not hit that magical threshold, the undefined moment when I’ve put in the right amount of time, earnt my stripes and become that mythical creature – a real adult.  

I've had conversations with colleagues about how they feel uncomfortable being managed by someone my age.  I still have to deal with the four letter word.  I get a different reaction from some members of the team than my peers.  I’m still judged on my appearance (did I mention that I’m also the proud owner of a young face and a plethora of freckles?) before I’ve even contributed to the discussion.  I still get unwelcome comments on my age.  I still get told I’ll understand when I’m older.

But what is different is that I’ve reached a point where I’m comfortable with the kind of leader I want to be and also where I am at the moment.  I know what I’m good at and where I need to develop and my age doesn’t feature in this equation.  I’ve learnt to focus on my leadership skills and ability instead.  It is here I can make the difference, no matter what I do in reality my age will change at the same pace either way!