Finding Women Leaders in Healthcare

How can organisations within the healthcare sector find female leaders?

In the UK today, the gender gap between men and women is decreasing every year with a record number of women securing leadership roles at FTSE 100 companies. Nevertheless, within healthcare, it is still men who command the large majority of leadership positions.

In the NHS, only 37% of board positions are filled by women – despite 77% of the workforce, a huge majority, being female. Furthermore, in many British universities today, more than 70% of medical students are women, illustrating that there is an abundance of talented working women within the sector.

Similarly in the United States, men at the top dominate the healthcare industry. A Women in Healthcare Report found that only 4% of CEOs are women, although the numbers for middle managers are increasing. Nevertheless, to explore why there are so few female CEOs, 100 women were asked for their views on the issue. One respondent said: “Gender roles continue to exist in the workplace, making this progression harder than originally imagined […] Upper management is male dominated, making it difficult to form a strong connection.

Indeed, the reinforcement of gender roles is often blamed for the dearth of female leaders in health. CEO of the women’s leadership organisation Aspire, Dr Sam Collins, said that many women feel isolated working in “masculine” workplaces, noting that as many as 60% of women consider themselves democratic and egoless but these traits are often not compatible with the “masculine” environments they work in.

A similar view was given in a 2013 Kingsfund study, which found that 49% of female respondents believed that gender roles continue to play a role because having children limits their opportunity to work up the chain of command. Furthermore, 2 in 3 women feel greater pressure to prove themselves than their male colleagues because of the “masculine” environment around them.
Nicola Hartley, director of leadership at The King’s Fund, said that women remain “seriously underrepresented” in positions of high responsibility within British healthcare – especially as they make up large majority of the workforce.

The Guardian was the first to report that women now account for 20.7% of board positions at FTSE 100 companies, up from 12.5% in 2011 – which was described as a terrific achievement by then Business Secretary Vince Cable. Nevertheless, whilst FTSE 100 companies have made a clear effort to hire females for senior positions, the NHS and other health organisations have not made enough progress.

In health, the gap between men and women in leadership positions is concerning. Whilst there isn’t one definitive reason for this gap, organisations should make the effort to invest time and money in developing the female leaders of tomorrow in order to diversify their workforce.
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