When gender balance at high profile events doesn’t become a talking point, proper progress will have been made, writes Helen Birtwhistle
Space is genderless. According, that is, to Helen Sharman OBE, the UK’s first astronaut and speaker at the fourth HSJ Women Leaders’ Network event in Manchester.
Along with 90 female leaders from across the NHS we were captivated and inspired as Helen, a self-confessed introvert, told us her story of being selected from thousands of hopefuls to travel to the Mir space station in 1991.
The training programme sounded as mentally and physically exhausting as you would expect, but ultimately the final selection was based in large part on how well the astronauts could work together. Helen came out on top. She broke new ground for Britain - and she just happened to be a woman.
Outer space may be gender neutral, but the NHS certainly is not.
As director of external affairs for the NHS Confederation, which through NHS Employers has partnered with the HSJ on the Women Leaders’ Network, it has been a privilege both to chair this recent session and to watch the network grow and flourish since it was established in September 2015.
Achieving diversity of representation takes planning and we started out by setting targets
So many fantastic female colleagues have said how much they value having a supportive environment in which to discuss a range of tough issues.
In all my 35 years working in and with the NHS though, introducing an astronaut to the stage was a first.
Helen Sharman’s fascinating story of leadership and triumph resonated strongly with the members of the Women Leaders’ Network - a group that now has more than 400 members.
It was set up to empower and support women working across health and care with the tools, resources and confidence to forge ahead with their careers and professional goals.
It was particularly apt to hold this latest women’s network event on the eve of the NHS Confederation’s flagship annual conference and exhibition. Who present could forget conference chair and journalist Anita Anand’s ‘boy band’ quip as she welcomed the six, male leaders of the national health bodies to the main stage in 2015?
While as conference organisers we have no control over who is appointed to the ‘top jobs’, we can influence who appears on our event platforms.
Achieving diversity of representation takes planning and we started out by setting targets. A key objective was that we would have no all-male line-ups anywhere at any time during conference.
We successfully achieved that aim (in all six main stage panel sessions and no fewer than 26 breakouts) at the same time as fielding what many people commented was probably the best ever programme content, and quality of speakers.
Of the 33 speakers overall on the main stage, 15 (46 per cent) were women – up from 35 per cent the previous year. In addition, the conference chair was once again a woman – the brilliant Anita Anand.
The breakout sessions were delivered by a total of 117 speakers, of whom 57 (49 per cent) were female (43 per cent in 2015).
While as conference organisers we have no control over who is appointed to the ‘top jobs’, we can influence who appears on our event platforms
We made progress too on BME representation which increased from 6 per cent on the main stage in 2015 to 18 per cent this year, and in breakouts from 7 per cent to 14 per cent.
So what does this tell us about gender equality and the NHS? And how is the HSJ Women Leaders’ Network contributing not just to the debate, but also to finding solutions to the problem of under representation of women in decision making roles in the health and care sector?
Women tell us that the NHS needs to re-frame failure, share our mistakes and challenges and celebrate our successes. We need mentors and sponsors, and we need to look at job descriptions and forget what we can’t do, and focus on what we can.
We should confidently remain committed to our principles. Women need strong role models – the sort of leaders who were in abundance at Confed conference.
Breaking the glass ceiling
The work has already started. This year Ed Smith, the chair of NHS Improvement and gender diversity champion for the NHS, pledged his support to take forward the network’s vision to see a 50/50 gender split on NHS boards.
We are pursuing evidence and research to assess this goal, including if we need to set even higher targets.
We must always lead by example. The NHS Confederation, including NHS Employers, continually challenges the under-representation of women in senior leadership positions in the NHS.
This latest Women Leaders’ Network event highlighted the advantages of looking outside the NHS for inspiration
Evidence shows that diversity and proper gender balance amongst key decision makers deliver real benefits for patient care. The NHS Confederation’s own board of trustees has a 50/50 gender split.
There is still much to be done to smash that glass ceiling – we will have made proper progress when the gender balance on boards and at high-profile events isn’t a talking point.
This latest Women Leaders’ Network event highlighted the advantages of looking outside the NHS for inspiration. Role models come in many forms, including astronauts.
Helen Sharman told the network that she was motivated to do a good job, the best she could, and also to enable others to do the same – and that true leaders are in fact enablers, people who have the qualities to help and support their colleagues.
Her closing advice for us all was to “just go for it”. As we approach the network’s first birthday, that is exactly what we intend to do.
Helen Birtwhistle is director of external affairs at NHS Confederation