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The Circles programme: leadership development for women

‘I couldn’t find a space where I fitted in… so I created my own!’

These words belong to Poppy Jaman, Chief Executive of the City Mental Health Alliance, and guest speaker at one of four half-day workshops held by The King’s Fund through the spring, exploring gender and leadership with more than a hundred women at all stages of their career from right across the health and care system.

There is an inspirational message in these words; about not accepting the structures you might find yourself in and instead creating an alternative where you can be yourself, where others can be themselves too, and where life and work can be congruent and humanising – where our whole self is present, engaged and seen.

'These workshops were our opportunity to explore how women relate to and take up their leadership in the health and care system... and how these intersect with issues of race, age and class in particular.'

These workshops were our opportunity to explore how women relate to and take up their leadership in the health and care system, how gender inequities are playing out in the experience of those who attended and how these intersect with issues of race, age and class in particular. Together, we considered the supposed ‘confidence deficit’ among women, the idea and potential of feminist leadership, the importance of allyship and the responsibilities women have to one another and the role that men must play dismantling patriarchal structures in the health and care system and beyond. Finally, in a more contemplative session, we considered the future of work and imagined a more human and humane place, acknowledging with Poppy, that it is a place we must create and build together.

The King’s Fund has been dedicated to developing women leaders for over twenty years via the Athena programme. The Athena programme has supported hundreds of women to survive, thrive and step into more senior roles across health and care. Despite these many personal successes, what we heard in the workshops is that the basic structure of inequity remains untouched. That improving the representation of women at senior levels hasn’t yet led to structural change for women and other minoritised groups in the workplace.

Despite the fact that 78 per cent of the health and care and workforce are women, our commitment to development that supports women’s leadership remains grounded in the reality that women continue to occupy less leadership space than men, and continue to be less well-paid than their male counterparts. For minoritised groups of women, experiences of workplace discrimination and exclusion horribly compound the broader inequities.

Beyond the workplace and within wider society, gender-based violences and injustice remain pervasive across society, with one in four women affected by domestic violence over their lifetime, and one in five experiencing some form of sexual violence by the age of sixteen. It’s painfully clear that women’s experience in all aspects of society needs urgently addressing.

Athena, the goddess of war, in some ways incapsulates this picture and the heroic and highly individualised beliefs about and expectations of women leaders that leaves ‘the system’ untouched. And though we stand on the shoulders of all those women who went before, what we heard repeatedly over the spring was the need and desire among women for something different. Leadership that is less heroically individual and more collective and distributed. Leadership that is socially conscious and actively engaged with the systemic injustices that continue to surround us. Leadership that creates cultures of care that are equitable and just, and teams, organisations and communities where it’s possible to express difference, be yourself, and still feel part of something.

'Re-imagining women’s leadership development for the 21st century means moving towards this more collective and distributed spirit of activism.'

Re-imagining women’s leadership development for the 21st century means moving towards this more collective and distributed spirit of activism. Our contribution to this effort is to replace Athena with our new Circles programme. Circles is an acronym of the programme’s underlying principles (collective, intersectional, radical, critical, loving, engaged, sisterhood) and symbolises the cycles of experience and learning around which the programme is designed. The circle symbolises interconnectedness, appearing in spiritual and cultural belief systems the world over, speaking to our intention to move beyond the western philosophies that typically dominate leadership development.

The re-imagined and re-designed Circles programme places accessibility and community at the centre and seeks to work with women at all stages of their career across the NHS, local government and the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector. In particular, it will embrace difference and provide a platform for women from minoritised groups under-represented in leadership roles.

The Circles programme won’t just develop individuals in the hope they progress in their careers and effect change one promotion at a time, it will be an intervention in the health and care system; a movement that supports women to grow communities of support and cultural capital, to extend their networks, and express support and solidarity to one another. A long-term and life-long exercise in collective voice, leadership and social change that invites men to take up their role and responsibilities alongside women in the creation of spaces at work (and beyond) where, as Poppy put it, we can all fit in.

With thanks to Diana, Lydia, Masego, Mali and Caroline from The Young Women’s Trust, Sam Allen from North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care System, Farah Nazeer from Women’s Aid, Poppy Jaman at City Mental Health Alliance and all the women who contributed to the Athena workshop series.


Circles programme

Find out about Circles, our new leadership programme for women. Expand your understanding of challenges facing leaders in the health and social care sector.

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