We need to encourage all the women out there to step up onto the healthcare stage and make their voices heard, so that the service has the best chance of delivering patient care
A recent survey has revealed that if you want to get ahead in business, you need to be called Andrew. In the health service you probably need to be called David, which pretty much tallies with chief executives of FTSE 100 companies – David or John being the preferred monikers.
‘The dismal statistics have so far failed to prompt any upturn in the pace of change’
Unsurprisingly, Jenny doesn’t feature anywhere in the survey – nor do any female names – because we’re a rare breed in the upper echelons of business. In healthcare, women occupy 37 per cent of board positions but make up 80 per cent of the NHS workforce. This is actually quite high, considering that FTSE 100 boards only have 23.5 per cent women.
The realisation of these dismal statistics has so far failed to prompt any upturn in the pace of change needed to boost these numbers significantly.
It is now acknowledged that increased diversity is one of the ways to improve patient outcomes. It’s also the case that companies perform better when they have at least one female board executive.
HSJ Women Leaders network
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Too many Davids
So why is it that this year’s delegates at the NHS Confederation’s annual conference were confronted with a chief executives’ panel resembling the “oddest boy band”?
On the need to tackle the issue of women and leadership in the healthcare sector, no image was more powerful than that of Simon Stevens flanked by David, David, Duncan, Bob and Ian.
‘I for one don’t want to keep on feeling frustrated. I want to feel positive and empowered’
So how do we ensure the panel in future is made up of the new Barbaras, Helens and Julias so Amelia, Isla, Oliver, Olivia, Jack and Harry take to the stage?
I for one don’t want to keep on feeling frustrated. I want to feel positive and empowered, like I did at the recent launch of HSJ’s Women Leaders network, where clever and opinionated women came together to talk passionately about their experiences and how they want to change the healthcare leadership landscape.
Gatherings like this are important, as is using evidence based arguments to persuade those working in positions of power (whether male or female) in healthcare to mentor and support women to reach the top.
I’m fortunate to have been championed by both male and female mentors in my career, but have also experienced instances that underscore how women must overcome more barriers than men to get to the top in healthcare. Examples of everyday sexism are not earth shattering on their own, but together they are powerful.
I once briefed a very senior person on a complex issue for more than an hour to prepare him for a meeting – my professional title defined my role as being someone with expert knowledge in this field. At the end of the briefing, instead of thanking me in the context of my professional role, he commented on my nail varnish.
‘A female colleague of mine was presumed to be the tea lady in a room of about 30 men’
On another occasion, a female colleague of mine was presumed to be the tea lady in a room of about 30 men, despite a male colleague being left untested on his tea making capabilities. Many in that room expressed surprise when, having poured them their cups of coffee, she got up to deliver the keynote presentation.
And while working as political adviser to a government health minister, I know female colleagues were often presumed to be their boss’s secretary. That’s not something their male counterparts ever experienced.
Appearance over ability
These examples matter because assumptions were made about women’s seniority or competence on the basis of our gender and appearance – not on our ability. Others report similar experiences.
The King’s Fund and HSJ recently reported that two-thirds of women leaders feel a greater pressure to prove themselves than their male counterparts, and report struggling with an “old boys’ network”.
‘My mentor has given me the confidence to believe that I am, in fact, a woman leader’
Some women have felt that pressure most of their working career. I also think some of the challenges women experience are as much to do with age as with gender.
As someone from Generation Y, it is not unusual to be presumed the most junior (in terms of hierarchy) in the room, despite being surrounded by men who are younger than me.
Mentoring has really helped me overcome this particular challenge. My mentor, Karen Castille, has provided me with invaluable support and guidance focused on my skills, not my age. She has given me the confidence to believe that I am, in fact, a woman leader.
A great start is the fact that a key principle of HSJ Women Leaders network is for members to commit to nurturing emerging leaders.
In order to do this we must encourage more people to become mentors; use our influence to highlight instances of discrimination when they occur; and weaponise (to borrow Ed Miliband’s phrase) the evidence available to make the case for change.
Above all, we need to encourage all those Olivias and Amelias out there to step up onto that stage and make their voices heard, so that the health sector has the best chance of delivering patient care.
Jenny Ousbey is associate director for Lexington Communications