How do we change NHS culture to make way for more women leaders?

The 100 plus people who attended our recent conference on women in leadership were very clear that cultural change is essential if we are to redress the relative and continuing scarcity of women leaders across all sectors, and in the health care sector in particular.

Of course, it takes women and men to change the culture of this particular system – which has a predominance of men in leadership roles, a widening earnings gap between men and women, and a gender imbalance at board level that will take 70 years to redress if current trends prevail. And, as Dean Royles, Chief Executive of NHS Employers, pointed out at the conference, it is important that we try to change this culture. Why? Because diversity and difference in leadership is essential, particularly in the NHS, which needs leaders who are able to challenge themselves to think and act differently to deliver radical and transformational change.

Gender is an important source of difference, and delegates at the conference suggested a number of characteristics that could apply to women leaders – including working inclusively and collaboratively – which are particularly suited to the demands of the NHS. But delegates also pointed out that good leadership is just that – it is adaptable and flexible, visionary and pace-setting when it needs to be, and effective leadership is not determined purely on the basis of gender. So what’s holding women back?

Our conference generated several themes around this: women need to own their strengths and not be coy about their achievements; caring responsibilities are often assumed by women, leading to a demand for part-time and flexible working, which is still, in some sectors, seen as an impediment to leadership ambitions; and women need good role models.

Diane Abbott MP spoke eloquently of how her experiences in education – at an all girls’ school and women-only university college – created an environment in which she saw strong women leaders and no barriers to advancement, but in her early career in media, racism and sexism reared their ugly heads. When Ms Abbott made a bid for the leadership of the Labour Party she was the only candidate who was neither male nor white – offering little hope for optimism for future women and BME leaders. She emphasised the point that, in an environment dependent on human capital for prosperity, it makes no sense to put unnecessary barriers in the way of any future leaders.

Delegates at the conference highlighted the immense value of networking and coming together to share experience and learn from each other. This is not simply an attempt to replace the ‘old boys’ networks of the past. It is a recognition that one of the most important factors in encouraging women leaders is having self-belief: and self-belief is developed by connecting with people who can support and inspire, who can coach and challenge and who model good leadership behaviours. In that regard, our final speaker was a huge inspiration: Dr Katherine Grainger CBE told the conference about her journey as an Olympian – the triumphs and the setbacks, and the factors that had helped her reach her impressive achievements. ‘My parents believed in me...and that helped me to believe in myself’ she told a rapt audience – a point echoed by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in her recent book Lean In, which she dedicated to ‘ ...my parents, for raising me to believe that anything was possible’.

Belief that anything is possible, then, was one of the take-home messages from the conference. The challenge for us all is to work to create cultures in which there are no needless barriers to leadership ambitions. The answer to the question ‘How do we change NHS culture?’ is, ‘It takes everyone to achieve change – women and men – and people have to believe in the possibility and the importance of cultural change.’

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Comments

#41204 Tze Min Wah
Associate Professor and Consultant Radiologist
Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust

This is probably the best RSNA trip for me in Chicago and the highlight of the trip was to hear 'Dr Condoleezza Rice' speech on 'Mobilizing Human Potential' on 3rd December 3013.

She talked about Leadership and women in Leadership certainly touched upon the subject as stated here -'women need to own their strengths and not be coy about their achievements'

One of the question asked by the RSNA audiences, should leadership be included into the education curriculum?

The answer was 'management' can be taught and leadership is about 'knowing'......

she encourages those leaders whom have made it strive to identify, seek out and nurture the leaders of tomorrow during their journey of travel.............

The secret of the 'mobilising human potential' is about - empowering creativity and innovation

I am inspired by her speech.

#41206 Claire Hammill

I was disappointed that I was unable to attend the women in leadership conference. The speakers sound very inspiring. I would agree that self-belief and confidence are one of the biggest barriers. I wonder if it is women not empowering, mentoring and coaching other women within the work environment that contributes to this, more than men being the ones creating barriers?

#41208 Tze Min Wah
Associate Professor and Consultant Radiologist
Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust

Dr Condoleezza Rice said that we cannot wait for a role model to arrive to inspire and lead us, rather 'knowing' is the key...

She also went on to say if she was waiting for the same person as she is to come along to inspire her, she will be still be waiting today......., instead, she said the leaders that had inspired and nurtured her were 'old white male' .....

I do resonate with her, I think 'knowing' is the key......there is a 'leader' in each of us, the level we may practice is at varying level depending on one's aptitude.......

#41235 Soni Putnis
Consultant Colorectal Surgeon

No surgeon works 24/7 yet our patients demand that attention. We therefore, by necessity, rely upon our colleagues and juniors to support the care of our patients. In addition, busy surgeons often work at multiple sites, therefore increasing their inaccessibility. Surgery is an ideal career for those seeking short periods of part time work as these can be easily accommodated with the right approach.

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