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Clare Gerada: just don't call me 'ballbreaker'

What does it mean to be a female leader? Clare Gerada argues the old distinctions are less relevant as people simply focus on the job at hand.

There are clichés in abundance to describe the ways in which women lead, so I want to start by saying that I don’t feel like a “woman in a man’s world”, nor would I describe myself as a “ballbreaker”.

What I am, however, is the first female chair of the Royal College of GPs in more than 50 years, so the focus on my “femaleness”, perhaps more than any of my other qualities, was inevitable.

Contemporary focus is resting on the leadership style of arguably our most famous female leader, Margaret Thatcher – the Iron Lady. Very much a “woman in a man’s world”, she demonstrated that to succeed, it was necessary to dispense with accepted “female” qualities, and embrace “maleness”.

I think those times are now in the past, but that is not to say the relevance of female leadership, particularly in times as challenging as these, is something we can easily ignore.

The last female chair of the RCGP was Dame Annis Gillie, one of the founding members of the college. She became chair the year I was born – 1959 – and despite more than 50 years between us, there are notable parallels in the challenges we faced, not least that we have taken leadership in a time of crisis for the profession.

The crises we faced are different, but our positions as female leaders have similar resonance, and it would be difficult to ignore the fact that, particularly during these times of crisis, our “female traits” are scrutinised far more than they would be in calmer times. I’ve been accused, variously, of being emotional and naive – qualities that, were I a man, might be exchanged for strong-willed or open-minded.

I’m mindful of enduring sexist attitudes, but, that said, I feel we are lucky not to live in times where we are judged solely on these attributes. Women leaders are not expected to be iron fists in velvet gloves, or nurturing influences among the aggression of men. I think some of my work over the last 18 months alone has proved this to be the contrary.

More women than men are now going into general practice and, as a profession, this has required us to look carefully at the way we view leadership, what it means in the context of a successful working environment, and how we can adapt it to suit the changing needs of our workforce. It is so important to the college that we have appointed a dedicated leadership fellow to oversee our work.

I believe that leadership has evolved, and continues to. And because of the feminisation of general practice, it is here that this evolution is most obvious. Flexible working styles, to allow for family responsibilities to take precedence where necessary, have opened the doors to female leadership in a way that has never been seen before.

I think women are lucky these days to have role models in positions of responsibility. It is for that reason that I believe it is so important for leaders to stand up and be counted, and to lead by example. This is about focusing on doing the best job possible in the time we have to do it and, in the case of the college, doing everything in our power to ensure that GPs and healthcare professionals remain able to provide the best possible care to our patients.

I do think that as a woman you face the choice of home versus career, and I think the anguish and persistent guilt if you choose to focus on your career is probably still greater than for a man. In the end though, no leader ever has it easy – and difficult choices are part of the job.

To be the first female chair in more than 50 years is an interesting fluke, but I hope that this fact alone will not be what defines my tenure. I hope that I am leading with the fundamentals of high-quality general practice – kindness, listening, caring and, as the current climate demands, adaptability to change – at the centre of all I have and go on to achieve.

I began on a cliché, so let me end on one; there’s the old joke that Fred Astaire was great, but Ginger Rogers did it backwards, and in heels. Heels aside, to be a woman leading in a man’s world is becoming an increasingly false dichotomy; it is what we achieve, rather than our gender, that is important.  

Readers' comments (3)

  • Really great article, Clare - as always you made me think. With the workforce in the NHS being 70% female (this includes primary care), we need role models that demonstrate you can be successful as a female or a male leader with attributes that are more usually associated with being female. Attributes such as kindness and compassion, having the guts to change one's mind when the circumstances change, and not being afraid to say sorry when you make a mistake or something goes wrong. Not to mention juggling home and career. Men can do these things just as well as women, we just need to encourage and support them.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • Ballbreaker? Traitor was the first word that came to mind.

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  • The majority of the 70 percent being nurses, who have always demonstrated the leadership skills described. Unlike the majority of our medical colleagues!

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