• Leading academic says little progress has been made to get more women on NHS boards
  • Target for 50/50 gender split by 2020 is now a “much harder task”
  • Just a quarter of NHS providers have so far met the target

Achieving an even gender balance on NHS organisations’ boards by 2020 is now a “much harder task” than it was a year ago, as only a quarter of providers have so far met the target.

Ruth Sealy from Exeter University’s business school, who wrote the original NHS Improvement backed report recommending the 50/50 target, told HSJ at the Women Leaders Forum annual conference the figures haven’t changed much a year on from her work being published.

Her 2017 report was the first in-depth look at gender balance on NHS boards. It found the situation was improving but there was still a lack of women in key positions.

It set a target date of 2020 for the 50/50 split to be achieved, but Professor Sealy suggested progress has been slow since then.

She said: “It’s [now] a much harder task but that shouldn’t be a reason not to go for it.”

She stressed that for it to be achievable, the target needed to be considered “at every appointment”.

“You need to push the message down,” Professor Sealy said. “[NHS organisations] need to be very aware… it is easy to forget about that.”

When addressing conference delegates, NHSI’s executive medical director and chief operating officer, Kathy McLean, revealed only 26 per cent of providers have so far met the 50/50 target.

“We would need 230-odd women in positions men occupy to reach that balance,” Dr McLean said.

She added only 21 per cent of medical directors are women, and described it as “shocking”.

“We need to understand why this isn’t a different picture,” she said. “It is down to getting this embedded, not just in trusts but in all bits of the system. We do tend to think of hospitals all the time.”

Samantha Allen, chief executive of Sussex Partnership Foundation Trust and chair of the Health and Care Women Leaders Network, told HSJ the NHS “needs to be realistic” about the 50/50 target but said she doesn’t think it should be “disheartened” by the progress.

“We are facing some of the biggest challenges but getting this right will address some of those,” Ms Allen said.

She suggested the NHS also needs “clear targets and outcomes” for improving leadership diversity but she stressed it is mainly about “culture and behaviour”.

NHS Confederation chief executive Niall Dickson told the conference the NHS “has to move away from macho leadership”.

“Regulators have a really critical role, both in taking positive action around issues such as gender pay and leadership support, but also the cultures they foster and what they engender by their own actions,” he said.