Year of the Midwife: what does this mean for leadership?

By Bernie Divall, Professional Advisor, Leadership, Services to Members on 27 January 2020 Leadership Maternity Services

Last year was designated Year of the Leader within the RCM, and this year is the WHO's Year of the Midwife. The two celebrations are inextricably linked, when we consider the question that lies at the heart of each: What does it mean to be a midwife? Ask that question of any midwife or midwifery support worker, in any part of the profession – clinical, managerial, educational or research-based – and you're likely to get a similar answer, grounded within the desire to give excellent care to women, their babies and their families.

So far, so unanimous. And yet, within our profession we hear recurring stories of division. In the context of leadership, this division is heard in descriptions of clinical leaders and managers having moved to 'the dark side', or not being seen as ‘one of us’ any longer, particularly if they seem absent from the clinical area. For their part, midwifery clinical leaders describe the challenge of developing and maintaining a hybrid identity – loyal to their clinical background, but now holding a growing understanding of broader operational and strategic issues in healthcare structures and functions.

Focusing on the question of midwifery leadership, as we move into the Year of the Midwife would this not seem an ideal time for our profession to celebrate what we share, rather than what divides us? Here at the RCM, we have articulated why this shared sense of identity matters for midwifery leadership, and we are able to describe ways in which a conversation within the profession – and beyond – about the value of a strong professional identity might be begun.

First, the recently launched RCM Leadership Manifesto highlights the importance of strong, effective midwifery leadership if we are to ensure the excellent care we all strive to deliver. However, as Gill Walton writes in her introduction to the manifesto, midwives' voices have struggled to reach the highest levels of management within NHS trusts and health boards. This lack of leadership at its optimum level has been highlighted within any number of reports addressing failures in maternity services. The Leadership Manifesto sets out seven steps to strengthen midwifery leadership, and what stands out is the range of areas in which midwives can influence at strategic level – be it in NHS trusts and health boards, regulatory bodies, education or research settings, midwives have opportunities to develop leadership careers. Or they might do, if they are supported to explore these paths with timely and appropriate support.

The RCM sees a central role in supporting midwives to explore possible futures. In 2019, as part of our Year of the Leadership project, we launched our leadership development brochure, subtitled Something for everyone. This was based on the principle that all leadership and career thinking begins from a place of self-understanding. We offer a range of workshops and longer programmes for midwives and MSWs wherever they might be in their career, and they all begin with the questions, 'Who are you?', 'Who might you be in the future?' and 'How might you get there?'. The RCM is committed to the idea that leadership is everybody's business, and to supporting midwives' and MSWs' development in whatever field of maternity care they choose.

So, as we celebrate this Year of the Midwife, the RCM's leadership development programme will continue its focus on understanding self and others. That way, the development of a cohesive midwifery identity and effective leadership at every level might be shared throughout the profession, answering the question 'What does it mean to be a midwife?' from all our perspectives. Maybe we can get started with that conversation about what we share, and celebrate the breadth of the midwifery identity. It's the perfect year to be doing that!