To mark International Women’s Day today, Dr Kathy McLean, executive medical director and chief operating officer of NHS Improvement, reflects on its theme of gender balance.
When I became a consultant in 1994, I was the first female consultant general physician in my hospital. This seems astonishing now: much has changed significantly in the past 25 years. But barriers remain to women reaching senior leadership positions.
As a clinician, I’m struck by the proportion of female medical directors in trusts – 21 per cent compared to 42 per cent in the medical workforce as a whole. According to the BMJ, only 12 per cent of consultant surgeons in England are female, despite medical schools having had a roughly 50:50 gender intake for at least two decades.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #BalanceforBetter. For me, gender balance simply means striving to use all the talent we have in the NHS – reflecting both the wider population and the rest of the health workforce. Often gender bias can be unconscious, particularly when women are seeking to advance into leadership roles. But working towards a more inclusive workplace for women can benefit everyone.
Last November, I spoke alongside Professor Ruth Sealy, author of NHS women on boards, at the annual conference for the Health & Care Women Leaders Network on the network’s priorities for the coming year. The NHS Confederation and NHS Employers set up the network in 2015 to support women working across the health and care sector. It now supports the ambitions of hundreds of senior and aspiring women leaders.
As a member of the guiding group, working alongside Samantha Allen, network chair and chief executive at Sussex Partnership, we’ve identified our priorities over the next three years. Achieving gender parity on NHS boards is and will continue to be one of our key priorities. We’ll also seek to overcome some of the barriers to reaching senior leadership positions through access to flexible working, using networks and mentoring, as well as working to reduce the gender pay gap.
In the NHS, we’ve been working towards a goal of 50:50 gender representation on boards by 2020. The then chair of NHS Improvement, Ed Smith, set this goal in 2016. The following year, NHS Employers and NHS Improvement published NHS women on boards, which showed that on average the gender balance was 41 per cent female. Last year, NHS Improvement’s survey of provider board membership and diversity showed a slight increase to 43 per cent, with the average provider board comprising eight men and six women. While the numbers are moving in the right direction, anomalies stand out when you interrogate them in detail: for example, despite 62 per cent of the finance workforce being female, only 35 per cent of finance directors are women.
With the proportion of female doctors in training now at 57 per cent, the real challenge will be retaining and supporting them so they have fulfilling, challenging and interesting roles while ensuring both men and women maintain a work-life balance. We can all play a part in this, and I encourage you to join me in making a personal pledge to support #BalanceforBetter and the network’s priorities over the next year. Let’s hold each other accountable, and we’ll report back on our progress as a network next year.
Dr Kathy McLean is executive medical director and chief operating officer at NHS Improvement. Follow her on Twitter @KathyMcLean13.
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