Rebalance the gender imbalance | Rose Penfold

Women make up most of the NHS workforce yet remain in the minority when it comes to leadership. Rose Penfold, academic clinical fellow in geriatric medicine at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. She is also co-founder of Women Speakers in Healthcare and here talks about the work the team is doing to make sure every event in healthcare has balanced gender representation.

Despite comprising the majority of the health and social care workforce, women remain underrepresented in senior leadership positions across the NHS. We know women face unique barriers to leadership and specific career challenges, which may ultimately lead to disadvantages in career progression.

Some argue that women still face active discrimination or unconscious bias in the workplace, so it is perhaps unsurprising that conference organisers searching for high-profile chairs, speakers or panelists often land themselves with a gender imbalanced lineup – or even a manel (an all-male panel).

But why is this a problem you ask? Well, many reasons but because diversity in all forms improves staff experience, organisational performance and outcomes. We believe that conferences should model what we want our health and social care workforce to look like and thereby empower the audience to speak up and to voice their own views. But changing the status quo is going to take time.

From a state of gender predominance, a self-perpetuating cycle may continue. We see it time and time again when event organisers often indirectly favour speakers with a previous track record of speaking at events, the majority of which currently are men.

What are we doing about it?

With a team of amazing women, we founded Women Speakers in Healthcare (WSIH) with the aim of achieving balanced gender representation at all healthcare conferences and events across the UK. We are raising awareness of the underrepresentation of women in this domain and forming the UK’s largest database of women speakers in healthcare. Conference and event organisers contact our team to request a speaker for their event; we search our database, identify appropriate speakers and facilitate the connections.

Our grassroots movement has gained extensive publicity via a dedicated website, social media and professional networks. It has been endorsed by female and male leaders across the NHS, has signup from healthcare professionals, patients and carers from a diversity of backgrounds. Since the launch in April 2019 until July 2019, there have been 312 speaker signups and we’ve gained 1,523 followers on Twitter.

What’s next?

We’re not stopping there. We have longer-term ambitions to continue to build the speaker database, facilitate organiser speaker connections and evaluate connections made, the experiences of speakers and the broader diversity of our database.

We all have a collective responsibility to end any excuse that event organisers wanted more women to speak – but couldn’t find anyone suitable and we believe this initiative can rebalance the gender imbalance.

So, if you are, or know a brilliant woman speaker, event organiser or male ally or just want to know more about WSIH – we want to hear from you!

Rose Penfold is academic clinical fellow in geriatric medicine at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and is a part of the team at Women Speakers in Healthcare. Follow the Women Speakers in Healthcare team on Twitter @womenspeakersHC

For more information on work in this area see the Health and Care Women Leaders Network web section and attend the Health and Care Women Leaders Network annual conference on 13 November.

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