Closing the NHS leadership gender gap


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 ranks and it’s a different story.

According to NHS Employers, while 77% of the NHS workforce are women, just 45% work at senior management level. In 2015, a report from the Health Service Journal painted a woeful picture, finding 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 is 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 ageing population that’s living with more long-term conditions.
To do that we need people who can build consensus across healthcare, 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.

“This legion of female workers is a source of untapped talent who could be playing a pivotal role in building the health service of the future”

Moving towards a solution

As part of a team looking at the economic impact of Government policy, I conducted a survey of women in the NHS – and one thing that struck me was many women were struggling to attain leadership roles.
There is a huge need to empower women, so I personally decided to use my own skills and do something about it; I set up the NHS Women Leaders network. The initiative aims to help current female leaders 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.
The interest and support we have received so far, including a promise to launch the first interview from Caroline Dinenage MP, a Minister at the Department of Health and Social Care, shows there is a real need.
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. It would be great if at the same time we can inspire some joint working across the health and pharma sectors.
Because ultimately, we all want the same thing – better patient outcomes.

Industry and joint working

As an industry, we are always talking about changing patients’ lives, so why aren’t we utilising all the tools at our disposal?
I have worked alongside the NHS, in the pharmaceutical industry, for more than 20 years. These companies already have huge personal development programmes through which employees are upskilled, developed and prepared in order to move on with their careers. But we are not sharing these basic leadership skills with our customers and where the critical need is.
Industry could and should be playing a pivotal role in upskilling the women of the NHS. They know how it’s done, and they already have the best practices of how to build leaders.
We should be providing free-to-access leadership programmes, skills development, competencies and core education. That would be more of an investment in our customers and in our patients than a detail aid or an exhibition stand could ever be.
Everyone in the healthcare sector, including pharmaceutical and life sciences companies, has made a commitment to improve patient outcomes. We should now look to give the people delivering those outcomes the skills they need to do it competently.

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 that 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 is Managing Director, Grey Bear Consultancy.
Go to or contact Emma on
LinkedIn – NHS Women Leaders
Twitter @NHSWomen