Stella Vig is a vascular and general consultant surgeon, who is a clinical director at Croydon University Hospital.
This is an interview by Womanthology. The issue is titled Women of Colour and there is an amazing podcast with special guests Dr Ambily Banerjee, Inclusion and Diversity Advocate, and Inês Santos. Worth a listen!
“My pride in being Indian and Welsh, and being brought up by parents who instilled a belief that you can be whatever you want and to ignore negative vibes, has ensured that I have progressed despite all blocks hurled into my path.”
What excites you about being a Surgeon?
Surgery has been a magnet, with an exciting mix of immediate results and the application of science and anatomy, and has pulled me in since I was five. I went to the University of Wales, College of Medicine and qualified in 1991, training in Wales and London, becoming a consultant in 2005.
Although surgery involves hard work and long hours, it still allows the ability to pursue other work and personal ambitions. I have had the privilege of teaching across the professions as well as managing within and out of the NHS. I have also been married for 27 years and have two children, who now have careers of their own.
What is your working week like?
My working weeks are never the same and I enjoy a variety of roles. These include working as a surgeon with outpatients and surgery as well as on-call commitments. On other days, I am both the divisional clinical director and the training programme director for South West London core and higher surgical training. This allows the unique ability to ensure that finance, governance, education and service are combined to ensure the best for all.
My roles allow flexibility to address the needs of the Trust as well as external roles such as being on the Royal College of Surgeons of England Council.
How has COVID-19 impacted on you?
COVID has had an enormous impact on all aspects of my personal and professional life. As COVID surged, in the first wave, I was heavily involved in the planning of services and resources to ensure that patients and staff were kept safe. Surgery effectively came to a standstill with people redeployed to enable the safe care of expanded critical care services.
The NHS and its staff were amazing, coming together as a team and innovating to ensure that services were as effective as possible. This rapid change was necessary but came with a cost of mental and physical exhaustion and a need to restart at pace, and at 150%.
Going into the second wave brings challenges for the delivery of winter and COVID pressures with a battle-weary workforce. The implementation of vaccinations brings a glimmer of hope that is much needed as we go into 2021.
How has a woman of colour impacted on your career?
At a young age, it never occurred to me that being female or of colour would hinder my career aspiration to be a consultant surgeon. The realisation that there were no female surgeons in Wales with children in 1991 made me reconsider my path.
Amazing mentors, and my future husband to be, supported my ambition, and I became the first female Calman registrar in Wales appointed to the surgical rotation.
But being a woman and wishing to have a family as well as being a surgeon, brought the fear of taking maternity leave. During both pregnancies, I took twelve weeks leave and went back to work full time, to ensure that being a mother did not impact on my career.
Being female and of colour has made me more determined to succeed, despite the conscious and unconscious bias that exists within society, as well as, to a lesser extent, the NHS.
The ability to ensure that I was over-prepared for the next step compensated and allowed me to progress despite not being in the right club, conversation and group that allowed others first passage.
My personal journey has embedded my desire to ensure that a surgical career is accessible to all and I will fight for this right on all levels.
What does intersectionality mean to you?
Intersectionality is a new concept and is not always understood, especially within the NHS. I am female, born and brought up in Wales in a working-class family, of Indian origin, married with two children. I am also Hindu and short.
My pride in being Indian and Welsh, and being brought up by parents who instilled a belief that you can be whatever you want and to ignore negative vibes, has ensured that I have progressed despite all blocks hurled into my path.
The inequity in the system cannot be readily understood or recognised by those who have had traditional paths into medicine and leadership, and increasing diversity will increase the understanding both for differential attainment as well as access to healthcare.
Why do organisations need to be more inclusive and welcoming to diverse talent?
Organisations will only survive and grow if they embrace and understand the power of diversity and inclusion. This is not just about colour and gender, but rather ensuring that the workplace replicates society which is important, especially in the delivery of healthcare.
Welcoming and enabling diversity is not about a tick box but rather ensuring that ambitions are understood and also discussed, so that negative unconscious bias and the imposter syndrome is dispelled at an early stage.
How do we transform surgery into a multiracial, multigender and multiclass profession?
My advice to women of colour (and anyone else who feels that they do not look like the other members of the surgical club), is to first consider whether they really want to do surgery. If the answer is ‘yes’, then we are all here to help.
It is possible and important that diversity is supported, and there is no better time than now. Surgery is having to change from a male-dominated workplace to a multiracial, multigender and multiclass profession. The structure of a surgical career is changing and will become more flexible, embracing maternal and paternal leave, carers’ responsibilities and the desire to have portfolio careers.
Work-life balance is already becoming part of a surgeon’s vocabulary as is the need to be true team players and working within a multidisciplinary team. Ignoring the negative gossip and rumour, and instead finding a mentor or supporter is important to help navigate the rules of a surgical career.
What are you looking forward to?
At present, it is difficult to consider anything than managing our lives in the context of COVID. Recently being appointed as trust clinical director of recovery has opened a new challenge for me and will no doubt lead to a journey I had not envisaged.
COVID has brought much sorrow and devastation but has also taught us to cherish life and embrace those dear to us. I look forward to spending time with family and friends, basking in the warm sun, laughing with and hugging those who are important to me.