Navigating a Pioneering Career in Digital Health: Debbie Bywater on Female Leadership

Debbie Bywater has built an enviable career spanning nearly 40 years as a leader improving healthcare through technology. She first got into digital health in its infancy. As she recalls, “At the time when digital was really quite new and I stumbled upon it, it wasn’t a defined career choice.” She began as a trainee programmer in the utilities sector before transitioning to roles in local government and then the NHS.

In those early days, female technicians were rare – “there was one other female coder, but that was it.” While a male-dominated field, Debbie feels fortunate to have avoided significant gender barriers over the years. She credits supportive managers for empowering her growth. “I’ve had some really supportive managers who have not thought that I could do a lesser job because I’m female, who’ve actually had confidence in me.”


The Importance of Technical Credibility


Does a leader in healthcare technology require a technical background? Debbie believes a degree of hands-on experience is invaluable: “I think it enables you to understand the opportunities that tech provides and also some of the challenges that your team and staff will have.” She reflects on her early hands-on roles, “I used to configure servers and end user devices, configure networks. I’d be out driving around the Shropshire countryside with kit in the back, going to set up a new site.”

This foundation of technical knowledge brings credibility that makes leading change easier. As Debbie explains, “It would have been far more difficult to build a team, deliver the programs we’re delivering, if people didn’t know that I’d actually been there.” The shared vocabulary and real-world experience facilitates communication across technical and clinical domains. “I think it enables you to talk the same language.”


Persistence Through Work-Life Challenges


While Debbie feels lucky in sidestepping major gender blockers in her career path, she is quick to admit, “It’s not been plain sailing.” Like many women, she has grappled to balance work demands with family caregiving responsibilities. She still struggles “trying to achieve a work life balance…I still don’t get it right all of the time.” Regional and national roles brought travel demands that strained work-life harmony as well.

In the high pressure context of healthcare IT, this balance is even harder. During large-scale IT transformation initiatives, weekend downtime evaporated. “You’d be getting calls, ‘We’ve got to go’ or ‘We need to fix this.'” This was a hugely demanding period. However, Debbie persisted through the challenges. She credits a supportive peer network, both women and men alike, with providing encouragement during difficult stretches.


Pushing Past Self-Doubt


Times of transition and uncertainty test one’s confidence. Debbie admits experiencing imposter syndrome when moving into new areas beyond her core expertise. She dispels the myth that you have to be 100% self-assured at all times: “You can appear confident and not feel it.” In these moments of self-doubt, she finds reassurance knowing “my experiences have been typical.” Peer commiseration helps normalise feelings.

Early management opportunities were stretching. Becoming accountable for large teams and budgets in her mid-20s caused some uneasy moments. However, Debbie made it through those tests of leadership, gaining critical experience. As she advises, “Project confidence, even if you don’t feel it, because knowledge can be learned.” Believing in one’s own potential to rise to new challenges is vital.


Paying It Forward Through Mentorship


Debbie benefited from mentors, both informal networks and formal career coaching. These relationships provide critical guidance as well as holding the mirror for deeper self-reflection. As Debbie explains, her executive coach “enabled me to see things slightly differently and reflect on my own approach to things. I found it a very positive experience.”

Now as an established leader, Debbie makes time to mentor up-and-coming talent. She believes it’s important female leaders reach back to pull others up the ladder behind them. Supporting the next generation of health tech trailblazers sustains progress toward greater diversity in leadership ranks. As Debbie declares, “We need to keep that ladder down.”


Key Takeaways: Take Risks and Stay Resilient


For women aiming for impactful careers in health tech leadership, Debbie stresses the importance of a growth mindset. While technical skills can be learned, resilience cannot. “Have confidence in yourself – project confidence even if you don’t feel it,” she advises. Seeking challenges outside one’s comfort zone accelerates development. Debbie reflects, “Whenever I stretch myself into something new, I’ve always benefited.”

Navigating setbacks and obstacles is part of the journey. Debbie concludes with one final piece of wisdom: “If somebody says you can’t do it, that would be more of an incentive to prove I could.” It is this determined, mission-driven spirit that has fuelled her pioneering decades-long career leveraging technology to transform healthcare for the better. Her story offers inspiration and guidance for the next generation of female digital health leaders.

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