Developing women’s leadership on the road to gender parity

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During a routine programme review at The King’s Fund in 2016, questions were raised as to whether we still needed our flagship Athena programme for senior women leaders. Hasn’t the glass ceiling already been broken by a number of women?

In traditionally male-dominated industries women are making progress: Karren Brady is vice-chair of West Ham Football Club, Angela Knight is a former Chief Executive of the British Bankers’ Association and Cressida Dick has just been appointed as Scotland Yard’s Commissioner – the first time a woman has held the post in the Yard’s 188-year history. But while individual women are making progress, a closer look at the statistics reveals there is still a long way to go to achieve true gender balance.

In a NHS where 77 per cent of the workforce are women, only 37 per cent of board-level positions are held by women. Developing women’s leadership remains at the heart of addressing this. At The King’s Fund, we have just completed the first three-day module of our revamped Athena programme with 25 senior women working across the UK health and care landscape.

The emphasis at these sessions was on leadership of self (eg being aware of one’s own emotions and responses to situations) and self in role. Part of this included using a ‘wellbeing wheel’ on which participants mapped out their perception of the space they had in their lives for activities such as time in green space, time for self, and time for hobbies, and the degree of fulfilment they felt at work (as well as recording more mundane activities such as eating habits, exercise, level of water intake and amount of sleep). We used the results of this exercise as part of a discussion to encourage participants to think about their own psychological, physical, emotional and spiritual health, and to consider the personal resources needed for leadership.

Attention to self-care may sound an indulgent notion, especially for those working in an overstretched and financially challenged system that often struggles to care for patients, let alone having the time and resource to invest in and promote self-care among staff.

Yet as research reminds us, physicians and other health and care professionals who fail to prioritise self-care are at risk of compassion-fatigue, burn-out and worse. Indeed, for all hard-pressed leaders, ignoring self-care could potentially harm themselves, their teams and their organisations (and ultimately those they care for) in the long run.

The literature suggests that women particularly struggle to prioritise self-care and can find it counter-intuitive. Yet the importance of ‘leadership wellness’ (described elsewhere as ‘putting your own oxygen mask on first’) has not been lost on the large multi-national (profit-seeking) corporations for whom the health and wellness of their leaders and employees is now considered a critical aspect of gaining the competitive edge. For example, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos prioritises getting eight hours of sleep each night to perform at his best.

It is somewhat ironic that in a sector predicated on caring for others, we often struggle to care for ourselves. However, this is an essential skill to learn as we develop women’s leadership and programmes such as Athena can help.


Jeff Donnelly

Comment date
16 March 2017
Women leadership is very essential. As we know the fact that women are unable to get enough opportunities to develop their position in the society or to get a better recognition. Most probably, we are living in a male dominating society so women are unable to get better recognition. Therefore, they need good leadership skills to develop their position in the society. Thanks for such a wonderful sharing and it definitely bring some light towards the success of women leadership.

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