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Women in leadership – how does the NHS measure up?

From Cameron’s ‘Cabinet Catwalk’, to the Lib Dems’ equal pay pledge and the Church of England’s long awaited backing for women bishops, July was a busy news month for female leaders. Freshwater director, Louisa Desborough, reflects on the health of equality in the NHS.

In our enlightened times, it’s generally fair to say that there are few opponents of gender equality.  But recent events – and some extreme reactions – speak volumes about the wide spectrum of views about how, and how fast, we should deliver it.

David Cameron may be a long way off his pledge to make a third of his ministers female by the end of his first parliamentary term, but five female cabinet ministers and a smattering of other senior female appointments is a step in the right direction. Right?

That wasn’t quite how it played out, though, was it? Cue outpourings of grief for the loss of the meritocracy, endless dissections on what constitutes a ‘serious’ hemline and constant assertions that Cameron has recklessly ditched substance for presentation and shelved the important business of Government for the ‘fluffier’ business of electioneering.

Meanwhile, there were cries of frustration as well as tears of joy at the Church of England’s General Synod as the vote for women bishops finally passed. 

Amongst this hysteria, Nick Clegg played a bit of a blinder.  First with that witty tweet showing off his own ‘work outfit’, followed swiftly by a policy pledge to fine large companies who fail to publish the difference in pay rates between men and women.

Also ahead of the curve, the Health Service Journal published its annual research on women in leadership.  As you would expect, the results show the NHS leading the field in terms of female leadership, with 39 per cent of executive and non-executive posts held by women – slightly up from last year.  However, they are still under-represented compared to the NHS workforce overall, which is 81 per cent female.

The role call of Inspirational Women, published alongside the research, outlined the achievements of 50 women nominated by peers for their contributions to healthcare.  These stories tell us far more than the stats about the amazing impact of talented females on the NHS. 

Women like Comfort Momoh, who set up the African Well Women’s Clinic at St Thomas’ Hospital, raising awareness and understanding of FGM and leading the way for similar services across the country.  Or consultant psychiatrist, Dr Alys Cole-King, whose suicide prevention campaign ‘U Can Cope’, put the issue firmly onto the national agenda.

Nicola Hartley, director of leadership development at the King’s Fund, indicates that the testimonies of many such women echo those we often hear from female politicians.  They are motivated by the potential of leadership to make changes for the better, but seriously turned off by the ‘dominance of macho working styles in their organisations’.

The testimonies of women at home and across the world tell us all we need to know about the real barriers to women in leadership.  Zero tolerance for gender-specific mudslinging and some solid, practical measures for a less combative culture in our great British institutions would be a good start. And if media and social media reaction is a reliable gauge of public opinion, we could all do more to incentivise talented women to represent us at the top.


Nick Clegg’s tweet Photograph: Twitter

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