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International Women’s Day: why we need more female leaders in the NHS


By Valeria Fiore
Reporter
8 March 2019

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Female representation at the top of the NHS doesn’t proportionately reflect the percentage of women in the NHS. Overall, 77% of the NHS workforce is female, according to NHS Digital data published today.

However, data published by NHS Digital last year revealed that only 37% of senior roles are held by women while the figure for all chief executives across NHS trusts, CCGs, supporting organisations and central bodies is 44%.

To mark International Women’s Day, Healthcare Leader asked a number of prominent women in the health service why it’s so important to have more senior female leaders in the NHS.

Tracie Jolliffdirector of inclusion at the NHS Leadership Academy

‘I think it’s important to have women in senior roles who understand their role in establishing systems that are inclusive. Women who understand the need to create and achieve equality between women, men, girls and boys, refusing to collude with the maintenance of mediocrity, and choosing instead to learn how to embody high aspirations.

‘They recognise the need to embrace strategies that support and value all women, irrespective of identity, so that workplace cultures truly reflect the values of diversity and inclusion.

They are allies, and use their privilege effectively in recognition and support of those who need it the most. They exercise courage and compassion in the service of hope and human advancement. What name do we give to these qualities? We call it feminism.’

Julie Wood – chief executive of NHS Clinical Commissioners

‘Gender inequality across the NHS remains a persistent problem. Despite women making up the majority of the healthcare workforce, they continue to be underrepresented in senior positions. Increasing the number of women in senior leadership positions is not only the right thing to do in terms of fairness, it can also boost performance.

‘Research shows that boards with 30% female members make better decisions and have performed better in terms of operational excellence and financial performance than those without.

Having greater diversity in leadership, not just in terms of gender but across a range of characteristics such as race, sexual orientation and disability, is crucial so that we as leaders better reflect and represent the communities we serve. This will result in better services and better outcomes for patients.’

Dr Karen Kirkham – national clinical advisor for primary care at NHS England

‘Women leaders in the NHS bring an important perspective when it comes to decision making and are a crucial voice in ensuring diversity across our organisations.

‘I think the most important leadership quality is the ability to keep patients at the heart of every decision, remembering who we represent and what is important to them.

As we further integrate health and social care services, it is important we find and nurture the next generation of leaders, men and women, who will be key to improving our NHS for the future.’

Dr Navina Evans – chief executive at East London NHS Foundation Trust (ELFT)

‘Diversity in the NHS reflects the diversity that exists within our communities. Without gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and identity being represented equally from the bottom up, we can [end up in] a blind spot when it comes to understanding the needs of the people we serve.

‘Working for an NHS trust where many of the leaders are women empowers me to act as a role model not just for women employees, but for everyone within our organisation and beyond.

‘Hopefully my colleagues will be inspired by seeing that gender doesn’t hold you back and that women bring an array of skills to the team.

‘Women leaders are more than ever needed to right the balance. We all have experiences and insights from our own perspective, whatever gender.

As a woman leader, I am keen to support women in their professional development and ELFT’s Women’s Network is creating a forum for women to join [forces] and further enable the change that women need to prosper.’

Joan Saddler – associate director at NHS Confederation

‘Women leaders are part of the new generation of leadership that is required to deliver the transformation we need for the future. We need people who are visionary, who can work across teams, who can see the different solutions, who are resilient and who can juggle a number of different priorities.

‘Women certainly hold that kind of experience.  In the NHS, we are still struggling to get equal representation of women on boards in NHS trusts; that is certainly something we should be aiming for to represent the population we serve.

‘International Women’s Day is a time to reflect and celebrate on the advantages and the strengths women have brought to the public sector and the NHS in particular. We can celebrate the future and not forget that it was only over 100 years ago that we got the vote.

Now, we are celebrating that we can actually be respected as women both in the home and at work and that we can certainly be part of that senior leadership that the NHS needs to deliver services for the future.’

Dr Nicole Atkinson – GP and clinical chair for NHS Nottingham West CCG

‘Women have made a huge contribution to the NHS throughout history. However, it’s crucial that we do more to unlock their full potential.

‘We need to reshape our traditional ways of working, particularly for mothers during their child-raising years, to help them thrive both in the workplace and at home.

This should be through further flexible working, mentoring, networking and empowering women to aim higher.’

Dr Anju Gupta – clinical director at Barking and Dagenham CCG

‘Margaret Thatcher said: “If you want something done… ask a woman.”

‘The NHS is facing huge challenges .Women leaders have the passion, strength and fortitude to pull the NHS through its current troubles.’

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