'Sisters shouldn’t do it all for themselves' – crucial new report on men as allies in NHS launched

Sam Allen

Men in senior positions and across the health service must act as allies if the NHS is to move to balanced gender representation among its workforce and especially at the highest levels.

That is the central message from a new report, published by the Health & Care Women Leaders Network, which is delivered by the NHS Confederation and NHS Employers. 

Launched on International Women’s Day, the report, Men as Allies, gathers views from men in senior frontline and system roles in the NHS. They include David Sloman, Dean Fathers, Ian Trenholm, Martin Earwicker, Matthew Swindells, Mathew Trainer, Niall Dickson, Peter Homa, Duncan Selbie and Owen Williams.

“To achieve progress on gender balance across the NHS, we need men, as leaders and as colleagues, to understand the barriers women can face in the workplace and be prepared to ask women how they can be better allies,” Network chair Sam Allen said. 

“To attract, retain and motivate our workforce together, we all have a role to ensure the working environment in the NHS is one that supports all and helps everyone to achieve their potential. Balance is better for everyone.”

Research has found that where men are actively involved in gender equality, 96 per cent of organisations report progress, she added. Where men are not involved, only 30 per cent show progress.

The report explores some of the actions and behaviours men can take on to support the development of women leaders.

It also recognises the need to go much further than gender and the importance of reflecting gender fluidity, as well as those who identify as non-binary and trans in order to be truly inclusive in leadership across the NHS.

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers and deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “As men, we have to accept that our role as allies demands more than speaking on platforms against sexism or supporting networks. It is about truly listening to our female colleagues’ stories and experiences; it is about challenging our male co-workers and friends in our day-to-day interactions; it is about recognising that as part of the problem, we are also required to be part of the solution.”

Key findings from the report:

- Greater awareness of the evidence of business benefits brought by diverse leadership teams can help male leaders to make the case for diversity. Senior men are in a privileged position where they can influence wider attitudes and behaviour within an organisation and across the system. Many men have made their support clear for gender balance and supported initiatives such as HeForShe (www.heforshe.org).

- Women promoted to high-level jobs or looking to move to an executive role may be expected – or believe they will be expected – to work long hours, perhaps alongside family commitments to children and elderly relatives. For women with childcare or other responsibilities, this can be perceived as a barrier.

- Several interviewees said they believe women put up barriers to their own progress. While a man might ‘give it a go’ and apply for a senior job, a woman might see the obstacles such as lack of experience. This lack of confidence in their own abilities was seen as holding women back even when those around them felt they were ready for the job.

- Interviewees also described a tendency of some of those in senior positions to recruit in their own image. One pointed to a stereotype of what ‘effective’ is and a tendency from the chair downwards to appoint leaders with a similar management style. Such bias is highly likely to be unconscious, but regardless of intent, it can lead to shortlists of candidates who are all white men, one suggested. 

- One obstacle to a more family-friendly approach may be the increasing demands on the NHS for 24/7 staffing and the growing expectation that senior leaders will make themselves available at any point. But what people want out of a job may also be challenging. More men being actively involved in parenting and the portfolio-career aspirations of millennials may help normalise flexible working. 

- Male leaders need to develop awareness of when assumptions are being made, whether in recruitment, promotion or the everyday working environment, and be willing to challenge both their own assumptions and those of the people around them. They can help to challenge ingrained behaviours and assumptions, both within their own organisations and the NHS more widely. Refusing to accept all male shortlists for senior jobs may be one way to make a clear commitment to gender balance, although care needs to be taken to avoid tokenism. 

Read the Men as allies report 



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