Gender imbalance is still a challenge that must be addressed but the best piece of advice I ever received was to get a mentor. They help you focus, build confidence and challenge your own preconceptions, writes Helen Birtwhistle

Not long ago, I came across some of my diaries from the time when I was a teenager.

Helen Birtwhistle

Helen Birtwhistle

There was one entry written in 1976 that stated: “Had a really interesting time this evening, watching University Challenge and discussing the Sex Discrimination Act.”

My own teenagers thought it was hilarious; maybe because it seemed so alien, and earnest. It certainly made me think about how “sex discrimination” is not even seen as an issue by many of our children today – and therein lies part of the problem.

While we know there have been huge strides forward in women taking on leadership roles in many sectors, we also know that there is a continuing gender imbalance.

‘Sex discrimination is not even seen as an issue by many of our children today’

In health and social care – even though the general workforce is dominated by women – the female/male ratio is certainly not represented at more senior levels, with the exception of nursing directors.

Yet, balanced representation across all groups can really help in the delivery of services.

Diversity equals good care

A 2014 report by Roger Kline of Middlesex University, The Snowy White Peaks of the NHS, highlighted robust evidence which showed that a diverse workforce, in which all staff members’ contributions are valued, is linked to good patient care.

It quoted research that had shown that having a representative board is likely to benefit the planning and provision of services.

So, what is stopping women having that all important voice and influence within their own organisation, and beyond?

There are, of course, myriad reasons cited, some of which are practical and others more theoretical.

‘No woman or man should be forced to choose between raising children and having a career’

As a mother of four who has always been in full time paid employment, I have been fortunate to have a husband who has been completely hands on and supportive. I believe strongly that partnership working isn’t just for the workplace. In the 21st century no woman – or man for that matter – should be forced to choose between raising children and having a career.

And let’s remember the many women who simply have no choice but to do both. They need to be properly represented and supported through strong and meaningful decision making at every level. They – we – need a voice.

Values based leadership

That is why the NHS Confederation, through NHS Employers, is delighted to support the HSJ Women Leaders network. With our strong emphasis on values based leadership, we are keen to play an active part in promoting fair representation of women on boards.

As an organisation we work hard to nurture talent and develop leaders, both within our own teams and among our 550-plus member and partner bodies.

‘The single most important piece of advice from the key speaker was ”get a mentor”’

Based on my own experience, I would always advocate for getting a mentor. And it’s never too late.

In my late 40s I attended a women’s networking event, where the single most important piece of advice from the key speaker was exactly that - ”get a mentor”. She was right – mine allowed me to focus on what was important to me, build confidence, adopt strategies for development and challenge my own preconceptions. I have never looked back.

Crucially, none of it involved having to change who I am and what I believed in.

And what I do believe in is the aim of the network – to empower, encourage and celebrate the talents of women and women leaders. Only by harnessing all the skills available to health and care organisations, across all groups, will the NHS and its partners be able to deliver world class services for the people we serve.

Helen Birtwhistle is director of external affairs for NHS Confederation