The inspirational women

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As seen on the Health Service Journal website

I had the pleasure of being part of the judging panel for inspirational women in health with the HSJ. The process was really positive and the other judges were a joy to work alongside. What struck me about the list, though, was what it might say about women in health services and our impressions of them.

One thing that could surprise people is the absence of names they might have expected to see.

Part of our role on the panel was to canvass as widely as possible on the nominations received and ask around about where there might be gaps on the long list. When we got together to discuss our feedback and thoughts, we found there was a consensus about the sorts of behaviours we wanted to see from our inspirational women.  And where we agreed that wasn’t always evident, and worse still, where women were not great role models in progressing the role of women in senior positions, we knew we couldn’t accept them onto the list.

I am curious about why this is. Are we just much harder on women than we are on men? Do we expect or ask too much from them? Are we too quick to judge? Or is there something about what women have to become to make them so much more likely to reach national roles? Or is the gender issue irrelevant? I wonder if we had the same debate about inspirational men if we’d reach the same conclusions? Does this suggest that we are creating a senior, national environment where a certain set of behaviours are rewarded over others?

The research we did as part of our NHS Top Leaders programme a couple of years ago suggested that this behaviour and leadership style was more a product of position and seniority than it was related to gender. The inference was that we tend to look for the same in others as we value in ourselves – which leads to a particular leadership style being preferred and promoted over others. Both women and men were equally likely to have this style there was very little differentiation between the sexes, but there was a difference related to seniority.

So if some women have developed a particular and dominant style of leading which is – at least for this panel and their wider networks – not seen to be inspirational, then what are the implications of that for our current broader community of leaders? Where do we look to for our role models?

Whether the style issue is related to gender or not there is undoubtedly still a barrier to success for women in health. For an organisation that employs so many more women than men, why are the senior roles so significantly over represented by men? I commented earlier in the year that of the fourteen signatories to the Department of Health’s response to Francis only one was a woman. The fourteen most important, influential and powerful organisations in health are largely run by men. Who are they identifying as their successors? Who is working around them and what is the impact that the environment has on the women there? The change we need is not happening fast enough.  And of course this is only one area of difference we are failing in – we fail horribly on any measure of diversity you care to name.

Our evening as a panel was nonetheless hugely reassuring. We found very many examples of women setting the highest standards in inspiration. There are of course lots of women in senior roles who are truly inspirational and are not on this list. There will be many women in other roles throughout the health care system that are an inspiration to those around them and also not on this list. There are only 50 here and your choice may have been different to ours. The list is eclectic and varied – from newly emerging and inspirational, like Molly Case – the wonderful young woman who spoke at the Royal College of Nursing conference and captured beautifully what was in the heart of many in the NHS, to the host of senior women medical staff that are inspiring the next generation. There are women who work around the NHS in ways which influence, inspire and impress, and those such as my very own colleague, Yvonne Coghill, whose passion, determination and unrelenting commitment ensures we consider inclusion at every step of our journey.

We have so many wonderful women working in health. Their difference, unique skills, talents and behaviours are what make them the kind of people we should rightly treasure. It is up to us, all of us, to make sure we recognise, value, reward and promote what makes them different if we want to see the change we all need. It is our loss if these women remain less influential than they should be because they won’t compromise their behaviours or ways of working, or if we force them to change to fit in with what we currently think of as senior and successful.

So here’s to celebrating the women we name as our inspirational list, whether you agree enthusiastically, or think we have missed some treasured gems, I hope we can all agree that it is a good time to be grateful for those women making a difference in their own inspirational way.