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‘A closed circle’: inspiring inclusion for International Women’s Day and beyond


8 March marks International Women’s Day – and a curious, associated phenomenon: the collective cry on social media of ‘what about International Men’s Day?’1

This call and response that rolls in every year, reliable as the tide, is a perfect circle that illustrates why we continue to celebrate International Women’s Day. That the uplifting of women and the continuing fight for gender equality inspires some to continue to spotlight men, demonstrates why feminism is still needed.

Of course, that isn’t the only reason. The gender pay gap, while slowly closing, still exists, in large part because women are more likely to work part time. Almost half of working-age women in the UK provide an average of 45 hours of unpaid care a week (45 hours! That’s more than a working week atop another working week. What a club sandwich of labour that is!).

 Women are vanishingly rare at a senior level with only 6% of female CEOs in FTSE 100 companies and 35% of female civil service permanent secretaries in the UK – none of whom are women of colour. Women make up 77% of the workforce in the NHS and yet the glass ceiling persists with only 47% of senior leadership roles held by women. The fact that the data on gender and ethnic minority representation in NHS leadership is not routinely monitored and collected points towards the issue at hand.2 57% of women have reported a negative experience with a health professional, but even then, there is variation within women’s experiences of health and care services. Within the LGBTQ+ community, lesbians are most likely to report unequal treatment by health care staff. If it stopped at ‘negative experience’ or ‘unequal treatment’ that would still be concerning, but if you are a Black woman, you are four times more likely to die in childbirth than your white counterparts.

An illustrated summary of some of the themes discussed at the final session of our leadership development course for women, Circles.

Image credit: Beka H -

Compelling as these numbers may be, they do not tell the whole story. Over the past year, my colleagues and I at The King’s Fund have had the privilege of working with a diverse group of 36 female leaders across health and care on Circles, our women’s leadership development programme. The group was diverse not only in visible ways (eg, race or age) but in a myriad of invisible ways too (class, neurodiversity, sector, role, caring responsibilities). What we heard were stories of what it is like to be a woman and a leader in spaces that are still shaped by patriarchy and whiteness. These stories often overlapped and echoed each other as much as they diverged and were unique to each individual. We heard loud and clear that everything about the architecture and systems of our society makes women feel like imposters when they take their seat at the table. That men and women, when in possession of power, seek to uphold the systems that grant them that seat. And so the circle becomes a closed one, a never-ending loop with no way in.

So how do we start to widen the circle and find a way in? The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is inspire inclusion, with a focus on ‘the promotion of diversity in leadership and decision-making positions’. When thinking about inclusion, there is no better person to be inspired by than Audre Lorde and her declaration that ‘there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives’. The recognition that all of our circles intersect raises crucial questions for how we choose to tackle injustice and inequality. How can women focus on resisting sexism and patriarchy while we don’t fight collectively alongside Black, trans, queer and disabled women and take up their battles too? Why does the work of creating a more equitable future fall primarily to women when the weighted dice are thrown against us and not created by us?

It’s a challenge to all working in health and care: how can we expect to tackle the inequalities that our staff and communities face when our services don’t reflect those communities? I’ll leave the last word to one of our Circles collective:

'I have faced situations where people in positions of patriarchal power chose to fold their arms, remain silent and not provide help when they could. This has harmed my community and restricted opportunities to enhance and develop community services. It's time for change. We need a commitment to transform our approach to existing systems of leadership and governance that is inclusive of all communities and shares power. Only then can we hope to dismantle the patriarchal power structures and the narrow (mostly white) middle-class lens that is applied to marginalised, minority and working-class issues.'

Chief executive, VCSE organisation

Circles programme

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