Blog post

Reflections on International Women's Day 2021

A look back at International Women's Day 2021
Sam Allen

10 March 2021

Sam Allen, chief executive of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and chair of our Health & Care Women Leaders Network, reflects on International Women’s Day and sets out her personal commitment to advance gender equality and amplify inclusion for all.

It was International Women’s Day on Monday 8 March and I had the privilege of co-hosting a wonderful conference with Prerana Issar, the NHS chief people officer for England. The day was brilliant, energising and much-needed after a really tough year. The talent, courage and determination of our delegates and the honesty of their conversations overwhelmed and inspired me in equal part. I was in great company with others who are passionate about gender equality, taking the learning from the pandemic and making a positive difference for women in health and care.

The event celebrated the everyday courage of people from across the world, including the NHS and the wider health and care sector, taking action, creating impact and making a difference to so many lives. 

We had around 5,000 people booked onto the event, during the day over 3,500 were with us on our virtual platform at one time. Even during a pandemic, with so many competing pressures on our time, this shows how important it was for women to have a platform to make their voices heard. 

I know there were many more women and allies celebrating at other events and throughout the week. I also recognise those who were caring for patients and keeping the NHS, social care and caring sectors going who also showed their solidarity but couldn’t be with us.

Actions start with ourselves

Now, when it comes to gender equality, some may say that we have addressed this and there is equality in the workplace, yet the evidence shows starkly that we have not and this is shaped by policy, economic decisions and the barriers that can exist in the workplace.

It is truly a sobering thought to know that gender equality will not be achieved in my lifetime or that of my child. Action starts with ourselves.  Small actions can lead to big changes. Each and every one of us has a responsibility to be part of shaping inclusive and fair cultures in all we do.

As one of our inspiring speakers said at the IWD event:

“It takes a village to change a world. And remember, the decisions we make and the actions we take today can make a positive difference for the women of today and tomorrow.”

We each have a responsibility to ‘lift as we climb’, be generous with our time in supporting others and hold the door open for the person following you. I firmly believe that each and every one of us wants to work in a place where we can be our authentic self without fear of discrimination, bullying and harassment.

That is why the NHS Confederation’s Health and Care Women Leaders Network exists, and why I am so proud to represent the members of the network and act as their chair, to ensure that each and every woman working in health and care has access to a platform that will support their aspirations, that will raise awareness of the barrier’s women face in the workplace and will scrutinise and ensure we enable women to secure the senior and board level positions they deserve.

Removing workplace barriers

On International Women’s Day 2021, the NHS workforce is 78 per cent female, but women’s representation on NHS trust boards in England is just under 45 per cent. While this representation is a big improvement on where we have come from, it is still nowhere near enough.

In 2016, Professor Ruth Sealy published the report NHS Women on Boards 50:50 by 2020. The report called for 500 more women on NHS boards by 2020.

It is now 2021 and our new report, Action for Equality: The Time is Now, concludes that we still need 150 more women in board-level positions to reach truly equal boards. Now I am not a fan of quotas – I have not spoken to one person who has wanted to be appointed to make up the numbers.  We all want to be there based on being the best person for the role. But to enable this we need to remove the barriers that exist in the workplace and that do not support all to progress. These were very well set out in Dame Jane Dacre’s report on the gender pay gap in medicine.

But it is not only at the highest levels where inequality is found, women at every stage of their career face the same challenges.

The Health and Care Women Leaders Network’s mission is to be a strong, united and influential voice for women, embracing the multiple and intersectional identities that the word ‘woman’ speaks to. We are a network of networks, supporting the development of women’s networks in organisations and across integrated care systems.

Over the coming months we want to develop the network as an agent for change, a social movement able to influence, to drive positive culture change and to amplify voices to promote equality, diversity and inclusion across the NHS and health and care sectors.

As I look forward to what needs doing over the next 12 months and as a legacy of a wonderful day, my commitment to you is to continue to do all I can to advance gender equality and amplify inclusion for all.

You can make your voice heard by contributing to this open consultation to help inform the development of the government’s Women’s Health Strategy. The consultation closes on 30 May 2021.

Finally, I would like to share what I expressed to delegates at our event this week:

"It is hard to change the world on your own, but you are not alone. I ask everyone to create a ripple. When those ripples come together, they create waves. Waves roar and create power, motion, and change. Let us each create the ripple and make positive change to advance equality for all.

Change starts with I."

Sam Allen is chief executive of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and chair of the Health and Care Women Leader’s Network. You can follow Sam on Twitter @samanthallen