There is so much we can do to create an NHS in which women are encouraged to apply for leadership roles, writes Nikita Kanani

#worklifechaos is a twitter hashtag created to capture my world – I love being mum to two spirited children, being a GP and chair of Bexley CCG.

The difference I can make for our local population is incredibly important to me. Balancing the different parts of me, though, can be challenging and maintaining a ‘work-life balance’ is frequently cited as one reason there aren’t more women in leadership roles.

As we continue to face unprecedented challenges in the health and care sector, we must look at how we can change the fact that women are underrepresented at the top of the office in the NHS. Research shows that increased gender diversity in leadership means better performance for organisations – and so improved service for our patients.

“We cannot keep asking men or women to aspire to idealistic expectations which will lead to defragmented families and burn out”

I’m passionate about the benefits that clinically led commissioning can make to people’s healthcare. It’s something we continually revisit at the CCG and currently we’re working with all of our GPs and GP practice nurses in Bexley to find out what their interests are, creating a pool of clinical resource that we can tap into going forwards.

Tackling the challenges

Encouraging more women to apply for leadership roles is often down to the culture of an organisation, and the style of leadership within it. I’d also say that it’s important throughout your career to know your values and what motivates you – part of being a strong leader is the ability to unite people around common values.

Then there may be worries about the work-life balance I referred to earlier – or work-life chaos as I’d more accurately call it! A work-life balance does not exist. Let me say that again – it does not exist.

We cannot keep asking men or women to aspire to idealistic expectations which will lead to defragmented families and burn out. I can’t pretend it’s perfect but I’ve found ways to manage this – with my partner – so that dropping my children at school, being present at their (never ending) performances having those inane bedtime conversations (‘why did La Femme Nikita wear black, mummy?’) is a possibility.

It does mean that I have had to change the way I work – sending some late night emails, taking part in a conference call on the walk back from school run, making bulk meals that we all eat (most days) – but it means being able to have what is important to you.

I do what I can to build a culture at work where it’s acceptable for family life to be a priority and performance is judged by quality, not hours – I’m open about when my own family commitments need to take precedence and I know this helps colleagues feel more comfortable doing the same.

We all have a crucial role to play in encouraging diversity in leadership. This can be in a range of ways, including promoting flexible working and looking at language in job adverts to ensure they aren’t inadvertently phrased in a way that makes women less likely to apply.

These issues, along with a number of others, are explored in NHS Clinical Commissioners’ recent publication Lessons in leadership from women clinical commissioners, which includes practical advice to support female leadership. I took part in a tweet chat hosted by NHSCC and the HSJ Women Leaders Network inspired by this recently, where the last question was the advice that I’d give myself at the start of the career. The answer is the same one I’d give to anyone starting out now – be bold, be brave, have confidence, ask for help and above all know your values!

We need action both from individuals and across the system as a whole to overcome the structural forces that drive gender inequality. It won’t happen overnight – but if we are to do the best for our patients and populations across the country, we need to recognise this important agenda in the changing landscape of health and care services.

Dr Nikita Kanani is an NHSCC board member and clinical chair, NHS Bexley CCG