Women continue to face barriers to talking senior leadership positions

Published on Thursday, 18 July 2013 11:45
Written by Scott Buckler

The results of a new survey, published today, suggest women are still facing barriers to becoming senior leaders in the NHS

Just under a half (49%) of women who responded to an HSJ/The King's Fund survey thought having children put their career at a disadvantage, and two thirds felt a greater pressure to prove themselves than their male counterparts. Other respondents said that they struggled with a culture of an old boys' network and attitudes to women leaders.

The survey results are revealed at the same time as separate HSJ research offers one of the most comprehensive analyses of the health service's gender make-up since the Health and Social Care Act 2012 reforms. While women make up three quarters of the NHS workforce, just 37 per cent of senior roles on clinical commissioning group governing bodies and NHS provider boards are held by women. Despite women making up 81 per cent of the non-medical workforce in the NHS, men constitute the majority in the leadership teams of all but just 12 per cent of providers and 10 per cent of CCGs.

The HSJ and The King's Fund survey on female leaders in healthcare shows a significant minority of women in health report experiencing sexual discrimination. Over a third (37%) of women who responded to the survey said they had encountered sexual discrimination. In addition, over half of women responding (52%) said they had been bullied in the workplace.

When asked whether men and women lead differently, respondents most commonly highlighted that women had a more collaborative, inclusive, empathetic and/or understanding style than men. A minority of respondents though said that women could be more aggressive than men maybe because their felt greater pressure to prove themselves. Despite all this, three quarters of respondents would recommend a career in healthcare management for other women.

Nicola Hartley, director of leadership development at The King's Fund, comments: "Although women make up the large majority of the NHS workforce, they remain seriously underrepresented in leadership. These survey results, which chime with what we are told by the women we work with, show that they face serious obstacles in gaining senior roles. There some great women leaders in healthcare but the pace of change has been incredibly slow. These findings should act as a prompt to examine why we have too few women in the most senior roles and what we can do to change that."

"Despite the huge advances in equality over recent decades, women are still underrepresented among healthcare leaders," says HSJ editor Alastair McLellan. "Last year's HSJ 100 ranking of the most powerful people in health contained just 20 women – and that was an eight year high. Six women have appeared in the top ten since 2006 – but none of them have ever managed it twice.

"Women healthcare leaders often have it tough. As well as the challenges of juggling family and career and the overt sexism that still lurks in parts of the service, they face the hypocritical attitudes which limit their progress. Too often successful female leaders are deemed to be aping men, while those that fail are judged to have done so because they displayed a surfeit of supposedly female characteristics."

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