Leadership Academy

The glass ceiling is only cracked – let’s smash it!

Posted by: Chris Lake - Posted on:

Years ago I used to be somewhat gender-blind, holding a naïve belief that if I said often enough, ‘Gender is irrelevant, let’s just be a meritocracy,’ then I could make it so at least in my team.  It’s when I realised that, whether I liked it or not, I was a fully paid-up (if reluctant and unwilling) member of the patriarchy simply by dint of being a man, that I saw the world through new eyes.

These eyes saw a society constructed for centuries in favour of men.  I saw too an unequal society that perpetuates today where men hold the balance of power and predominate in roles of leadership, authority and privilege.  Nowadays, I frequently refer to myself as a radical feminist (as opposed to a liberal feminist – because I don’t just seek equal opportunity but push for a more challenging stance to dismantle male supremacy).  As a badge for this, my email footer always carries a feminist quote – a few examples of this in the banner below.

This self-imposed feminist label sometimes confuses people.  Not too long ago a colleague – a decent and well meaning man – challenged me on my use of this term, saying ‘Chris, you can’t be a feminist, you’re a man!’  My retort was that one doesn’t have to be black to support race equality, nor gay to promote workplaces where people can be their true selves.  One doesn’t have to be a woman to fight for equality of pay, opportunity and a fair society.

I think it was this reputation as a male feminist that led to me being asked to speak at the launch event of the HSJ Women Leaders Network.  Why did they ask me – someone who, on the face of it, is clearly a member of the established power holders (white, male, heterosexual, you get the picture…).  I think it was because the topic for the Network launch was ‘Should the HSJ Women Leaders Network admit men?’  My personally conflicted response was, ‘It depends’  If the aim of the Network is to provide a safe and bounded space for women to have conversations that simply would not happen if men were present, then I’d be a huge supporter, but a supporter from outside, and say, ‘Leave men out!’  However, if the Network has grander aspirations: to stimulate and provoke a political movement, to change our organisational cultures, the NHS, society, and indeed to change the very nature, practice and definition of ‘leadership’, then maybe the answer is ‘yes’.  And I’d urge and encourage my male colleagues to join and support the movement too.

Feminism isn’t about making women stronger.  Women are already strong.  It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength – G. D. Anderson, Australian writer and thinker


A man told me that for a woman, I was very opinionated.  I said, ‘For a man you’re kind of ignorant!’ Anne Hathaway, actress, human rights campaigner, LGBT rights activist, Step Up Women’s Network


Feminism has fought no wars.  It has killed no opponents.  It has set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practiced no cruelties.  Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions, for safety on the streets, for child care, for social welfare, for rape crisis centres, women’s refuges, reforms in the law.  If someone says, “Oh, I’m not a feminist,”  I ask, “Why, what’s your problem?” – Dale Spender, Australian feminist scholar, teacher, writer and consultant

I used to work with Val Hammond whose research underpinned the Opportunity 2000 report which coined the phrase ‘glass ceiling’.  Opportunity 2000, published in 1992, planned for a new millennium with a rebalanced workforce and updated organisational cultures.  Its aim was the equal employment of women, especially in senior management, in a way that reflects their abilities.

Fifteen years after the target date for board gender equality, we are still not there.  We may have had a woman prime minister, but arguably Thatcher, as best parodied by Spitting Image, filled up the role demonstrating exactly the macho and heroic approach associated with stereotypical male bosses.  This masculine style tilts leadership away from the inclusive, empowering practice that we know promotes staff engagement.  It limits organisational performance, and importantly in the NHS, it represents a real risk to patient care.

Cast your eyes over the figures below – at least in the NHS, the glass ceiling may be cracked, but it’s definitely not yet shattered.

% of England’s working population who are women 47%
% of NHS Workforce who are women 77%
% of women in the NHS in these roles:
Director roles 37%
Chief Executives 42%
Finance Directors 32%
Nursing Directors 85%
HR Directors 68%
Doctors in training 58%
All medical staff 45%
Consultants 33%
Medical Directors 24%

Source:   NHS Employers

And right at the top of the NHS tree the situation is even more stark.  Both the chairs and chief executives of NHS England, Monitor, the Trust Development Agency, Public Health England, Health Education England, and NICE – all men.  Even the six-strong team of health ministers holds five men and a solitary woman.

This month sees the 150th anniversary of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson becoming a Licentiate of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries and in so doing becoming the first woman to qualify in the UK as a doctor.  I wonder what Elizabeth would have thought about the stats above and the need for a women’s network?

History has a couple more examples of women’s groups that might serve as a model for us now.  A hundred years ago this month, women had the opportunity to join a brand new organisation – an organisation that’s still going strong today: the Women’s Institute.  The WI has always been for women only – it’s a bounded space for women to meet beyond the influence and interference of men.  Also a hundred years ago, women (and indeed men) could join the women’s suffrage movement and fight for equality and the democratic right to vote.

My challenge to the HSJ Women Leaders Network is simple – which do you want to be more like: the WI or the Suffragists?  If it’s the latter, then I’m up for joining!

2 replies on “The glass ceiling is only cracked – let’s smash it!”

  • Yes you’re right, I guess a man can believe in gender supremacy in womens favour too. A bunch of generic quotes and being spoonfed by all aspects of the media of the patriarchy theory can push simple minded people in this direction. Myself I prefer to put facts before theory. The facts are if you do actual objective (I was curious about what feminism stood for, point to all the dictionary definitions you want, the actions and reality are, its toxic) research you’ll find organisations that control the media such as WAM and THE PRESIDENT being a feminist make the theory fall apart at the seams. As for the facts, men have been providers and protectors for centuries. Given the choice of dying on the frontline or being at hone with the kids, being 80% of suicides or not, dying four years earlier or later, I know which I’d choose. Pay attention to logic mate, not the media.

  • Excellent article Chris. Certainly a radical feminist be – the result can only be better for our undervalued females who are equally capable if not better than their male counterparts.

    The figures become even more stark when you look at the number of BME women are in these positions. I wish you had looked to publish these as well. The ceiling is set so low and is so thick that any hopes of find cracks is like looking for a needle in a haystack. It will take leaders and passionate people in the patriarchy to look very hard at these old boys networks and seek to dismantle them.

    The problem of the existence of the glass ceiling is very much akin to an old adage “people like people like themselves”.

    Apply the Mars bar test to yourself personally and see how often and easy it is to fall into closed networks and unconscious bias. Do you work rest and play with members of these minorities and do you understand their fears and challenges? If you do have an appreciation, what are you doing personally and encouraging others to do the break down these invisible barriers?

    I am glad that NHS LA has a passionate radical male feminist who is responsible for many of the programmes which will be accessed like yourself. Keep up the good work!

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