Birthrights is an organisation with a vision to ensure everyone receives the respect and dignity they deserve in pregnancy and childbirth. Founded in 2013, Birthrights is a UK charity that champions respectful maternity care by protecting human rights. They provide advice and legal information to women and birthing people, train healthcare professionals to deliver rights-respecting care and campaign to change maternity policy and systems. Their mission is to become the authority on human rights in pregnancy and childbirth in the UK and use that influence to improve services and practice throughout the maternity system. You can read more about them here and read their inquiry into racial injustice in maternity care, published last May, here.

In 2022, Charity People worked with Birthrights to appoint their new CEO. Our Consultant on the role was Tiku van Houtem, who stated that:

“The interest in this role was particularly high, in part because Birthrights had a number of high profile campaigns recently such as “Dignity in Childbirth” and “Systemic Racism, not Broken Bodies”, which raised their profile hugely for a small but very mighty organisation.”

After a thorough hiring process, Shanthi Gunesekera and Janaki Mahadevan were appointed for the role as Co-CEO’s.

Shanthi and Janaki were incredible throughout the process and stood out from the get-go. They had a working style and pattern that complemented each other and played to their strengths. They were always humble and honest and highlighted areas they would need support in, as they didn't have Charity sector experience. Birthrights Chair, Elizabeth Prochaska, was very supportive of them working in a flexible manner and felt that the experience they brought to the table was invaluable as a duo.

Tiku van HoutemCharity People Consultant

We caught up with Shanthi and Janaki on their thoughts around the role they have taken, the recruitment process and what their ambitions are with Birthrights.

Why did you join this organisation?

When we first saw the role at Birthrights advertised, we were drawn to the mission of the organisation and drawn to the focus on racial inequity in maternity care, demonstrated by the recently completed race inquiry Systemic Racism, not Broken Bodies.

We were excited at the prospect of both empowering women and birthing people, amplifying unheard voices and working for systemic change. We feel Birthrights is in a strong place to drive that structural change and has huge potential to grow its reach and impact.

As mothers to young children, we also have a very personal connection to the charity’s purpose and were drawn to the unique lens which centres the protection of human rights through pregnancy and birth.

Our past professional experience has helped us understand the need to tackle deep-seated inequalities in the UK. We have previously worked towards long term systemic change through promoting and increasing access to information on rights and entitlements, worked with organisations to challenge and change cultures and practices, and collaborated across civil society, government, and statutory services to champion and campaign for long term change.

We felt this experience translated well to Birthrights work and would give us the foundation to support the team to deliver services and campaigns that both dealt with immediate concerns, as well as looking to the longer term changes required to address inequalities in maternity care.

What do you hope to achieve in your role?

We have set from the outset that we want to work in partnership with women and birthing people, those who deliver maternity care and a range of partners to drive forward Birthrights’ mission to ensure safe, personalised and equitable care is prioritised throughout pregnancy and birth.

To do this, our first priority has been to ground ourselves and strengthen our foundations to ensure we are able to grow at pace and have impact at scale. This means having an immediate focus on team wellbeing and support. We are so impressed by the commitment and expertise in the team and want to make sure they have the right environment and tools to deliver high quality services and champion the needs of women and birthing people and their caregivers.

Our aim is to focus our efforts to build our presence and reach, increase our impact and supporter base and ultimately work towards changing the systems, cultures and practices that lead to poor outcomes for women and birthing people.

We hope to achieve this by building a better understanding of the information and channels of communication that women and birthing people and their birth partners, health care professionals and the wider birthing community need to improve outcomes in maternity care, address inequalities and protect human rights through pregnancy and birth.

How do you feel about having taken on this role?

We are so glad to have started at Birthrights and have been overwhelmed by the welcome from staff and trustees and have felt really supported by the chair of the board, Elizabeth Prochaska. The commitment and personal investment in the work is so apparent and we feel truly privileged to be leading an organisation so committed to real and lasting change in maternity care.

As our first CEO role it was always going to be a little daunting, but knowing that we are doing this together had hugely helped with any nerves. We feel safe and assured with each other. One of the joys of job sharing is you always have someone who is as invested in you and your development as they are in their own. This means we can trust each other to be open and honest, kind and empathetic, and challenging and constructive.

How are the dynamics of working in a job share going for you both?

Job sharing has been such a wonderful experience for both of us. When we first started working together in early 2019, neither of us had any previous experience of job sharing. We were lucky enough to have some excellent coaching from Sara Allen from Further&More which was invaluable in learning more about how we worked as individuals and how we may work together.

We’ve been so blessed with wonderful teams, both in our previous role and now.

It is such a culture change moving from a large regional governmental organisation to a small charity. However, ultimately we are holding on to our established ways of working which mean investing time in our partnership, having comprehensive handovers, consistency for the team, and time to reflect and learn.

We both prioritise creating the environment for a high performing and happy team and share a focus on having a clear plan to meet our objectives based on evidence, engagement and collaboration. Organisationally, we have been supported to be flexible with our hours, so in our first few weeks we worked the same days to meet with our team, trustees and key partners together. We have established a single inbox which is critical to the way we work.

Everyone in the team has been open with us about any questions or concerns they may have about working under a job share, but have ultimately been so warm and welcoming, that has made the transition very smooth.

How was the support you had from Charity People along the recruitment process?

Throughout the recruitment process we felt supported by Charity People from the joint application, interview and subsequent on-boarding. Our decision to apply as a job share was fully respected throughout and there were no questions or concerns raised about our joint written application, or any question that we should be interviewed separately.

We were kept updated at every stage of the recruitment process and felt it went really smoothly. We were impressed with the inclusive way in which the recruitment process was conducted, that made us truly feel that our flexible working arrangements were both welcome and encouraged.