Alice Wiseman

Director of Public Health, Gateshead Council

Alice Wiseman is the Director of Public Health for Gateshead. 

Tell us more about your role at Gateshead Council.

In this role I have a statutory duty to protect and promote the health of the population. There are several ways I discharge my duties which range from commissioning some services (such as sexual health, drug and alcohol treatment and 0-19 public health nursing services), working across the council to ensure health is considered in each policy decision. I also provide public health advice to the NHS, manage the surveillance of health outcomes, and collaborate with partners locally, regionally, and nationally to improve health.

What do you enjoy most about working in your sector?

Without sounding clichéd I love the people I get to work with most. Whilst at times we may have different ways of doing things, fundamentally I get to connect with people who share many of the values I have such as equity and social justice. I have always been driven by the unfairness of opportunity, and working in a sector, and with people who are motivated to change, is very rewarding.

 How important is innovation within your sector?

Innovation is critical within public health. Health challenges change all the time and we are facing very different health challenges now to that of a few decades ago. So, unless we innovate it would be impossible to improve population health. We can however learn from the past too and apply that to different situations. For example, work to address the harm caused by tobacco has been remarkable but it has taken decades to understand that harm. While there is more to do on tobacco, it’s important that we learn from what has worked and apply that to other health challenges – such as alcohol, ultra-processed food and gambling.

The Covid-19 pandemic provides another example of the critical role that innovation played in managing one of the greatest public health challenges of a century. In contrast to the tobacco example, innovation was required at pace and not just across organisations but communities and neighbourhoods. Innovation in this context was broad ranging – from vaccine development at a national level, right through to supporting communities to understand and take the necessary action to protect themselves.

What professional achievement are you most proud of?

On a personal level, becoming the Director of Public Health for Gateshead Council remains the professional achievement I am most proud of. It is a role I always aspired to be in, but I never took it for granted that I would get there. Leading public health in Gateshead is a privilege and a pleasure and something, almost eight years on, that I still love doing.

From a broader perspective, public health is only improved through collaboration. There are many examples of strong collaborations but the collaboration to develop the local Health and Wellbeing Strategy is one that really stands out. Based on the policy objectives first set out by Sir Michael Marmot in 2010, the strategy aims to improve health but more specifically tackle the inequalities that are faced by too many Gateshead residents. The strategy was a joint venture between many people from local politicians to headteachers, police, local community and voluntary sector colleagues and the NHS, to name but a few. It took two years to fully develop but really began to embed the understanding that public health is everyone’s business.

What are the challenges of being a woman working in your sector?

I don’t think its so much the public health world that is a challenge but, at times, the way others (largely individuals rather than organisations) perceive the contribution that women make. In an earlier part of my career, I think there were times I was overlooked for opportunities which were instead given to a man. I have had people think I was the secretary in meetings rather than a participant, people who have commented on my appearance and dress and, even in recent years, when my annual report was published addressing women and inequalities, a member of the public saying I should ‘get back in the kitchen’. These may seem like little things in many ways but, for some women, I know it has been enough to put them off progressing and so something we must keep on challenging.

What advice would you give to other women working in your sector?

Find your allies (male and female) and identify a mentor. Provide support for those women more junior so they can progress. Listen in meetings to all the voices in the room and, if leading or chairing something, make sure there is space for everyone to get heard.

You also need to be tenacious and clear about your values. Don’t be afraid to be authentic and don’t be afraid to say what you need to – there is evidence that many women hold back because they don’t have the confidence. Often its these unheard perspectives which are of most value.

What would you say were the key challenges in your sector that currently prevent innovation moving forward?

Fear of not getting it right is probably a key challenge. We live and work in an environment that is very risk averse. This is probably for good reason in some ways, for example, what happens if we use our precious resources, and something doesn’t work. Time is also a key challenge as, we are all so pressed for time, its sometimes easier to maintain the status quo rather than challenge it. Managing change is another challenge as people often people feel afraid and uncertain about doing new things and, without the right support, it is more comfortable for people to resist.

Do you find any particular challenges as a woman working in the North of England?

The North East is a traditional community in many ways and, while lots of this tradition is positive (for example strong and stable communities) there remain some gender stereotypes in the expectations of what women and men do. We actually saw this through Covid – with women taking on more of the household chores, caring responsibilities and home schooling than men. If I am out and about with my partner, he often gets asked what he does for work, but I don’t get asked the same question. It’s the unconscious bias which is probably most problematic. Some of this is not region dependent and something that needs continued conscious action on at a national level, as well as in the global context.

You can follow Alice on X (formerly Twitter) at @AliceWiseman11 and Gateshead Council at @gateshead


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