Mind the Gap

Are healthcare organisations leading the way on gender equality?

 Estephanie Dunn 10 Mar 2020

A recent Guardian article stated that almost a third of board positions in the UK’s top public companies are now held by women - almost a year sooner than expected.

I read the article with interest and reflected on how far we’ve come as females. In nursing alone that is more than evident. For many years matrons, for example, were not allowed to be married. Your life was your work and you had to choose. Gender equality has come a long way, even in the past 40-50 years – but I feel we still have a long way to go before true equality is achieved.   

The Government has set targets to ensure more female are promoted (or supported to be) into senior roles and businesses are monitored for how many females they have in leadership positions – what a shame that it has come to this. However, despite my pang of sadness, I did read on with interest. 
It states that data from the government’s Hampton-Alexander claims it has hit one of its two key gender diversity targets ahead of schedule, after it set a goal in 2016 of women filling 33% of board seats in the top 350 UK listed companies by the end of this year. 

I wondered how this reflects across the NHS and other public sector workforces.  With nursing a female dominated profession we must be making strides, surely?   Yes, we have many fantastic Chief Nurses in our region, (the majority of whom are female), sitting at the top table. I’m also aware of at least two who have made Chief Executive level in the North West. Maybe things are more equal in the public sector? 

Coincidently, whilst pondering this blog, I was invited to speak to a group of staff at Pennine Care NHS Trust in Greater Manchester as part of my wider work on equality. I was inspired, not only by the strides they are making with their equality agenda, but to hear more about how they are transforming as an organisation.   

Their Chair, Evelyn Asante-Mensah OBE, informed me that 10 of their 15 board members are female, which she described as being a ‘transformative journey’. This includes their Chief Executive, Executive Director of Nursing, healthcare professionals and quality governance, and Executive Director of Finance.

In addition to this, Evelyn also explained: “One of our achievements is having a Chief Executive who works part time and delivers her role superbly.  There’s a stereotype of a male chief executive and an expectation that, as a female, you will emulate this behaviour. But we have recognised that in order to be effective and efficient we need to model who we want to be.”

I reflected on our own organisation, with a female Chief Executive, female Chair of Council and nearly all of the regional and country directors, director of the nursing department etc being female – maybe this is just the norm these days’ and there is greater gender equality? So, how what about all these targets and benchmarks set by the government? Or is it just our industry that is ‘more female’ because there are more female nurses? 

Touching back on my comment about unmarried matrons – today females can work, can have a family, hold senior positions – we can have it all.  But maybe we need more of a ‘Pennine’ approach? More flexibility, more vision to allow us to be able to ‘have it all’. 

“Having a gender balance really provides different experiences and expertise to shape our strategy and culture,” Evelyn told me. It’s food for thought. 

Back to the Guardian article, which cites that the lack of women on top leadership teams (one level below board level) has long been considered one of the main barriers to increasing gender balance in the boardroom. Women simply aren’t getting there in the UK’s top companies. 

What are the ‘real’ barriers though these days?  If a trust like Pennine can flex and adapt to get the right person at the top, why is this still an issue? 

In the health care profession, nurses, more than anyone, have to be strong, confident and personable people.  Traits of a board member, I feel.  Also, characteristics of true leaders. For most, leadership isn’t all about getting the top job. Leadership is about leading from the front, acting with integrity and being determined to do your best.

Most won’t have a fancy job title and end up with a place at the top table but our nurses and heath care staff are doing a great job – one of the hardest jobs in the world. 
Nursing has always been and still is a female dominated profession and yes, we do change the world with our wonderful profession every day. We just need to have more confidence in our ability as senior management and trust that our organisations will support us to thrive.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Estephanie Dunn

Estephanie Dunn

Regional Director, RCN North West

Estephanie Dunn has a lifelong background in nursing, spanning the independent sector and NHS. Prior to becoming Regional Director for the RCN North West Region in August 2014, Estephanie worked as the Operational Manager for the RCN’s Northern Region.


Page last updated - 12/03/2020