Closing the NHS gender gap will help build the health service of the future

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From patient to pharma, everyone involved in the health service stands to benefit from closing the NHS leadership gender gap — and there has never been a better time to act.

The NHS is powered by women. They make up the overwhelming majority of those working on the frontline of the country’s health: but go a little further up the food chain and it’s a different story.

Women make up 77% of the NHS workforce. Yet, a report from the Health Service Journal published in 2015 found that just 36% of chief executives, 26% of finance directors and 24% of medical directors are female.

This is quite simply bonkers — and it needs to change.

We live in a country that prides itself on equality, diversity and parity, yet this massive gender gap exists at the heart of our biggest, most beloved institution.

The case for change

The under-representation of women in NHS leadership has significant implications for the quality of services. This legion of female workers are a source of untapped talent who could be playing a pivotal role in building the health service of the future.

It’s not just GPs and hospitals any more. Integrated care systems are needed if we are to meet the challenges of delivering sustainable, quality care to an aging population that’s living with more long-term conditions.

To do that we need people who can build consensus across health care, social care, mental health and beyond: women have a huge range of skills in this area and they are skills that are desperately needed.

We all want the NHS to be a better institution, led by people who make the right decisions to improve patient care. That means we need more talent, opinions and experiences around the table when those decisions are being made.

Moving towards a solution

There is a huge need to empower women, so I decided to do something about it by setting up the NHS Women Leaders network. The initiative aims to help current female leaders to support each other as well as inspire others, by building a community of mutual support and an online repository of tools and resources.

In the coming weeks and months, we will be interviewing a wide range of female NHS leaders about their experiences. We will find out how they got to where they are today and how they overcame the barriers that so obviously exist.

These profiles, which will offer motivation, inspiration and practical advice, will be published on a dedicated website and pushed out through various publications, social media and digital channels.

What we are finding is that women want to be involved in empowering each other and they want to profile the work they are doing.

With NHS Women Leaders, we want to drive the conversation and build a community. We also want to inspire some joint working across the health and pharma sectors.

Because we all want the same thing – better patient outcomes.

The time is ripe

Experience in the private sector shows us that diversity at leadership level is critical to success, and the NHS needs to follow that example.

And this is well recognised. When Matt Hancock took on the role of health secretary earlier this year, he said upskilling and developing the workforce was one of his top priorities.

“Only when the whole workforce has the chance to fulfil their potential can the health and care system operate at its best,” he said.

Nationally, we are starting to see a shift in the conversation regarding equality and diversity, and the Government has committed to improving leadership in the NHS.

We have started the momentum and now is the perfect time to come together to create a more diverse health service. Because closing the gender gap will help us all achieve our goal of greater patient care.

Emma Clayton

To find out more or get involved in the project, go to or contact Emma on

LinkedIn – NHS Women Leaders

Twitter @NHSWomen

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