Fulfilling potential: the Athena programme for women

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The issue

Although women make up more than three-quarters of the NHS workforce, they remain under-represented in leadership roles. Global, national and NHS data all show that women face several barriers to progress including organisational cultures, unconscious bias, work–life balance and personal expectations. This needs to change: having women at the top of organisations has been shown to improve culture and boost organisational performance. Recognising this, the NHS has committed to a target of 50 per cent women on boards by 2020.

What did we do?

For more than 20 years, our Athena programme has supported women to fulfil their potential as leaders. It provides a safe space that enables women to share and discuss the challenges they face and help them recognise and navigate the conscious and unconscious assumptions they and others may have about their potential.

The programme is divided into four three-day modules that take place over nine months. The approach to learning is practical and is based on learning through experience and working with real-life situations. Participants look critically at how they work – with their team, their organisation and the wider system. Learning is supported in a range of ways including one-to-one coaching, peer-to-peer support and action learning sets, where small groups address complicated issues by meeting regularly and working through problems collectively.

What was the impact?

The programme has supported and developed more than 400 women over the past 20 years. In our evaluation of the programme, participants tell us that they think and behave differently as leaders because of the programme: they are more confident; they have greater self-awareness of their strengths and contributions; they take a much more strategic approach to their roles and are more resilient in a system that places high demands on its leaders. Our long-term follow up indicates that the majority of participants have progressed into senior positions and that they often directly attribute this progression to coming on the Athena programme.

I came away feeling much more confident about stepping into my own authority – and being OK with that – and feeling that I could be the expert. People told me after the programme that I was much more decisive and proactive and, as my career has progressed, I’ve held on to that learning.
Athena participant