We’ve made a start, and now women in leadership roles, or those aspiring to the top, have an opportunity to examine the difficulties, challenges and opportunities ahead, writes Vijaya Nath

Vijaya Nath

Vijaya Nath

When thinking about women leaders, I am often reminded of Judith Shakespeare, the tragic fictional character created by Virginia Woolf in 1929.

In A Room of One’s Own, the author concluded that even if Judith had been as talented as William, she wouldn’t have been as successful because society treated women differently, preventing many female writers from achieving their potential.

‘More than half the presidents of the Royal Colleges in England are now women’

A huge amount has changed since Judith was created, including in the health system.

Looking back on the NHS in 2015, will this year prove to be a turning point where women were able to achieve their potential?

Making progress

When compared with the corporate sector, the NHS can boast of some encouraging progress.

More than half the presidents of the royal colleges in England are now women, with Clare Marx last year becoming the first female president of the Royal College of Surgeons – an organisation representing a profession that continues to be heavily male dominated.

‘The traits needed for leadership is an area ripe for debate’

But with NHS Employers estimating that around 40 per cent of chief executives and 20 per cent of medical directors are women, it is clear there is still some way to go. Women make up 70 per cent of the NHS workforce, so they remain under-represented in leadership positions.

HSJ’s newly established Women Leaders network offers women in leadership roles, or those aspiring to be leaders, a safe space in which to examine difficulties, challenges and opportunities.

We know from our executive development programme for women, Athena, that such spaces help women get past the barriers they sometimes put in their own way, like being more self-critical than their male counterparts.

HSJ Women Leaders network

Addressing practicalities

Practical barriers preventing women from taking up leadership positions must also be overcome. Women tend to have more caring responsibilities at home that can make the long working hours of senior positions unattractive.

Other barriers include gender stereotyping, which can contribute to low levels of confidence and self-belief, and cultural expectations of what women should do with their lives.

‘Dealing with the language can greatly influence how women as leaders are perceived and valued’

The traits needed for leadership – and whether women should and do adopt so-called “male traits” in leadership roles – is an area ripe for debate.

The Ban Bossy campaign argues that the word “bossy” deters young girls from becoming leaders. It argues that while boys “assert” themselves and are considered “leaders”, when girls do the same they risk being negatively labelled as “bossy”.

Prompted by the campaign, the Center for Creative Leadership researched the traits and use of the term bossy in the workplace. It found that women are called bossy in the workplace more often than men.

It also found that both genders were as likely as the other to behave in a way typically described as bossy, and that this affected promotion prospects for both genders – although it affected women’s career chances more.

Undervalued activities

Dealing with the language can greatly influence how women as leaders are perceived and valued by shaping the wider culture of a workplace.

Other means of influencing work culture and nurturing leadership talent include creating adequate talent management systems to identify potential leaders – of both genders and from all backgrounds. This helps provide individuals with the support and development needed for leadership positions.

‘Overcoming these barriers will take a concerted effort’

Too often this type of activity is undervalued when budgets are cut – a mistake when addressing workplace culture is often a more sustaining, long term endeavour.

We still have a long way to go to make true equality a reality; overcoming these barriers will take a concerted effort.

Let’s just hope that when we look back on 2015, we will remember it as a year in which the distance between Judith and William became shorter.

Vijaya Nath is director of leadership development at the King’s Fund