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More progress needed to achieve gender equality in NHS leadership

NHS leadership that more fairly represents women in senior roles is “essential, overdue and needed now”, according to a report.

The NHS Confederation report, called Action for Equality: The Time is Now, finds there is much more to do to meet the NHS’s target for 50:50 representation this year.  

On average, fewer than half (44.7%) of executive and non-executive roles across NHS trusts are held by women – an improvement from 39% in 2017.

But there is significant variation in representation across individual organisations, ranging from as low as 15.4% all the way up to 77.8%.

The research, which was carried out by the University of Exeter Business School on behalf of the NHS Confederation, found variation in how women are represented in specific roles.

For example, only 1 in 4 chief financial officers and nearly 1 in 3 of medical directors across the NHS are women.

Women would need to be in an additional 150 executive and non-executive directorships, including 40 medical director and 50 chief finance officer roles across NHS trusts and arm’s-length bodies, to achieve the European Commission’s definition of gender balance of 40 to 60 per cent.

The research finds that there has been the greatest progress with female representation in non-executive roles, where more than two fifths (40.9%) are now women – an increase from 37% in 2017.

The proportion of women in chief executive roles has increased in the same period from 42.6% to 45.5%.

Sam Allen, chair of the NHS Confederation’s Health and Care Women Leaders Network and chief executive of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, said: “It is well-established that boards that properly reflect the communities and staff they serve lead to stronger decision-making and better outcomes for patients.

 “The NHS has made progress, but there remains much more for leaders to do in order to achieve consistent and meaningful gender balance.

“We must move away from the concept that gender balance is tokenistic or a ‘nice to have’, to something that is essential, overdue and needed now. This requires an inclusive and compassionate approach to leadership, with everyone in these vital positions held to account for their contributions.”

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