Getting more women to the top of the NHS speaks to the Health & Care Women Leaders Network about their work, progress on gender equality in the NHS and what they are focusing on next.


Mature female doctor standing on hospital corridor, looking at clipboard.

The Health & Care Women Leaders Network is a free network for women working across the health and care sector delivered by NHS Confederation and NHS Employers. Established in 2015, it has grown to include over 950 senior and aspiring women leaders. asked members of the Network how it works and what its priorities are.

What is the structure of the network and how do you use, for instance, social media etc to communicate with members?

The Health & Care Women Leaders Network: The Health & Care Women Leaders Network is chaired by Sam Allen, Chief Executive, Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.

Sam in turn is supported by the NHS Confederation and NHS Employers network team and the network guiding group who comprise senior women from across the health and social care sector. Our members connect through events, masterclasses and tweet chats and share learning through podcasts, blogs, videos and key reports.

The network is supported by a communications network made up of communication professionals from across the health and social care sector, who help with our work to raise the profile of the network, grow our membership and communicate with our members about our events and the networks work programme.

Have Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s recent comments on gender pay and the gender pay audits given fresh impetus to the work of the network and greater priority?

HCWLN: The Health & Care Women Leaders Network: We welcome Matt Hancock’s focus on women in the NHS workforce. It’s great to see him taking up the call for more women in senior leadership positions in the NHS and highlighting the role of support networks, like ours, in helping women to become future leaders of the NHS.

To what degree are issues around flexible working, in particular in senior management, a chicken and egg situation – with retention being a problem due to workload and workload being a problem due to staff shortages?

HCWLN: In reality many NHS staff would like to work in different ways to suit their personal priorities, as well as to deliver NHS services.

“Flexible working” means different things to different people, including working a different number of hours/days/shift lengths/shift types; having a degree of control and input into their rota; having a predictable shift pattern; being given sufficient advance notice of shifts; working in different locations; including agile working; and flexibility of how hours are worked, across the day, week, month and year.

Various models of formal and informal flexible working have been rolled out within the health service, such as the use of e-rostering, team-based rostering, annualised hours, job shares and part-time working.

It’s well-established that the NHS is facing a severe workforce shortage and we know that this is a top priority for trusts across the NHS Confederation’s membership and across the country. Any action that can support staff retention must be considered and offering flexible working options has been shown to do so.

How much progress is being made in terms of flexible working in operational roles as opposed to more administrative roles? Are you involved in discussions on how to address this?

HCWLN: Many NHS employees already work “flexibly”, to deliver community and hospital services, including 24-hour, seven-days-a-week services. In addition, trusts have policies and processes in place to support staff to submit formal flexible working requests as required.

But we know organisations can go further to support staff to work in different ways. Some NHS trusts are using different models of flexible working and developing more permissive cultures around flexible working to enable this.

Strong, visible leadership is important to truly embed a proactive and permissive culture. It is also important that job and role design are considered to allow for flexible working to happen. The network works with others, such as @FlexNHS, who promote and enable flexible working in the NHS.

Do you welcome the recent changes on Shared Parental Leave and do you believe this could have a long-term impact on women in senior positions? Are there challenges with communicating and role modelling the benefits of SPL?

HCWLN: The NHS always strives to be a great place to work and to support all of our colleagues. All NHS staff have a statutory entitlement to Shared Parental Leave. More role models taking up Shared Parental Leave would help in setting examples to others.

How has the network developed over the last two years since the first conference when confidence and culture change were big issues. Has this changed or is this still a focus and how are you tackling issues like culture change, particularly post #MeToo?

HCWLN: Our network’s aim is to ensure the contribution of women, who make up 77 per cent of the NHS workforce, is celebrated, gender diversity is embraced and women are empowered and supported to progress to board and senior level positions in the NHS.

What matters most to our network is for the NHS to be an exemplar in flexible working, to lead the way in eliminating the gender pay gap and to promote gender balance on boards and across senior NHS leadership positions.

All of these we believe are possible to achieve and will help shape an NHS where women are and feel valued and most of all promote a fair and diverse culture that delivers the very best care.

What are your priorities and do you think progress is being made in terms of building a pipeline of female managers or are other issues affecting the NHS, including staffing, Brexit and funding making this difficult?

HCWLN: In September 2018 we surveyed our network members and from their responses established our priorities for the next three years. These are: mentoring and coaching, talent management, flexible working, gender pay, women on boards – with the aim of an equal gender ratio, known as 50/50 by 2020.

To deliver our priorities the network needs men as allies, working with us and supporting and influencing on our behalf. Engaging with our senior male leaders and reaching out to male colleagues across health and care via the network’s Men as allies report will also be a point of focus throughout our 2019 work programme.

What is your main focus for the next year?

HCWLN: Our 2019 work programme will focus on supporting the work being done to make the NHS to be an exemplar in flexible working, to lead the way in eliminating the gender pay gap and to promote gender balance on boards and across senior NHS leadership positions.

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