Dame Sally Davies: what can organisations do to improve women's ability to achieve their potential?

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  • Posted:Thursday 15 January 2015

Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies talks at our Advancing women in medicine summit. Dame Sally explores the different challenges that women face in reaching their potential as medical leaders, and looks at the different qualities that women can bring.


As we reflect on women in leadership we should also reflect that we are different. We face different challenges in health across our lives. I am well aware, as are all of us, that we are the ones that have the babies, and of course that’s happening later and later. And there isn’t a right time to have a baby. You have to fit it with your fertility, have you got a partner?  I was widowed all through my 30s so I wasn’t going to have babies in my 30s, I was lucky enough to have them in my 40s.  

Men are important too. I don’t want us to forget them.  Actually our children need both parents if they’re going to develop properly. They need a lot of other input, so when I do things I do think about what will it do to help women, but I also think how could this help men? Women are very well represented in the medical workforce as compared with senior managers in nursing and midwifery. It’s good. We’re below 50% but we’re still doing well. When we work full-time women are doing as well as men. It’s not totally an issue of progression if you work full-time, but women are more likely to work part-time. In fact, in general practice women are five times more likely to work part-time than men, and seven times more likely in hospital practice.

It is interesting when you think about medical workforce planning. If we’ve got 56 per cent coming out of university as women and at the moment on average women provide 60 per cent of the full-time equivalent throughout their working career. Do you think men are 100 per cent? No, they’re 80 per cent.  For all medical staff it’s about 55 per cent are male and the rest are women, whereas as we start it’s the women and then they kind of fall off and the women make up fewer than the consultant grade.

So I would argue that women are being lost to the system. Now this slide’s fascinating. Women’s salaries consistently lower than men’s. Is it that women proportionately have fewer merit awards, clinical excellence awards? I think it’s more than that if you look how serious it is. I can tell you that the clinical excellence awards reward work over and above the job we are paid to do, so I’m not surprised that women who choose to do a good job and then to have a life, you’re not going to do so well there. So that may explain it, but I think there’s more to it and it would merit further investigation.

It’s interesting where women specialise. So they go in a big way for that second block, general practice, but they don’t really, as yet, go for surgery... pretty equal, Susy, in pathology... that picks up you and me... A&E slightly less women... O&G increasingly... clinical oncology low... paeds, as we know, doing well with women... but we are going for the more people orientated, the more plannable, we’re not going for the more unpredictable and technology orientated. Is that by choice or is there something else playing out? So is there discrimination? I actually think there can be discrimination. I know I suffered discrimination.  

What about role models and mentors? A lot’s made about this, that women need women role models and mentors. Myself? Mine were men. I think we can look to anyone we respect, we like, and we want help from. I think there’s something different and it’s called championing. Have you got champions who push you towards things, who stand up for you and say to other people when they’re talking, say ‘I’ve got the perfect person’ or who say to you, ‘you know, there’s that over there and it would be a challenge for you, but why don’t you give it a whirl, because if you don’t try you won’t find out,’ and that leads me into this indirect discrimination.

How many of your teams go to the pub after work?  Because lots used to, and I hated pubs, but a lot of networking, career building went on there.  There is some emerging social stances about feminisation... and I bet a lot of you have stories about this even if you haven’t got the evidence... women improve co-ordination of care, patient centred care, let alone understanding what their women patients, which after all are more than half the population, might be thinking about or talking about... and some women want to go to other women.

So we are having an impact on the service and how it’s delivered, and we shouldn’t forget that. We are helping change it, and actually the women are often much more practical and pragmatic about it.

There we are.  That’s my contribution, and I hope it’s useful.


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