The Leadership Centre for Health looks set to be headed by a woman director, bucking the men-only trend of top NHS appointments.

Barbara Harris, chief executive of the Royal United Hospitals Bath trust, has been heavily tipped for the post, topping a shortlist on which all or most candidates were women, HSJ sources say.

Ms Harris, who was not available for comment, has a record of active involvement in leadership issues and is on the national advisory group of the NHS management trainee scheme.

Dr Jenny Simpson, chief executive of the British Association of Medical Managers, confirmed that headhunters had also approached her about the job.

The other candidates are understood to be NHS chief executives, although Portsmouth and South East health authority chief executive Penny Humphris - tipped by some as a contender - denied she was 'in the running' for the post.

One - male - senior NHS figure did not apply for the job because at£90,000 it 'did not pay enough', compared with what a London acute trust chief executive might receive.

Another source said it had been 'a confusing process' to try to establish the Modernisation Agency and appoint the leadership centre's director - who will report to agency head David Fillingham - within a tight timescale. The appointment is understood to be waiting for ministerial approval.