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It’s time for female NHS leaders to unleash their power


photo credit Public Affairs via flickrPublic Affairs

The value of having women on corporate boards is lost because women are encouraged to behave like men to get there. Our focus needs to move away from monitoring the number of women on boards, to supporting women to be great, authentic leaders.

FTSE 100 companies are continuing their efforts to shift the needle in terms of achieving greater gender balance at board level. The motivation of FTSE companies to increase the number of women on their boards is to improve their performance and counter accusations of board homogeneity. The banking regulator described, for example, the board of the failing Royal Bank of Scotland as lacking in challenge, diversity of thought and personality. Similar to the argument for more women, the same claim could be applied to age and ethnicity.

More and more evidence shows that gender balance on boards improves financial and quality performance and delivers return on investment. Examples include a study of the Fortune 500 companies, and one from the Credit Suisse research institute which analysed the performance of 2,360 companies globally.

To achieve similar gains in the NHS, I have been campaigning to improve gender balance at senior leadership and board level for about a year. In the NHS, we know that if it is not measured and monitored, it will not improve. However, I am becoming increasingly concerned that we could embark on a habitual NHS risk of hitting a target and missing the point if we only consider the numbers. I question whether monitoring an absolute number or percentage is the right indicator, because it is the presence of people who demonstrate the so-called “softer” leadership skills (that are common in women) that will improve board or organisational performance.

At the risk of being accused of social stereotyping, studies consistently show that leadership styles and attributes do vary between women and men. Typically, most reports emphasise that women, in particular, have strong people skills, are empathetic and collaborative and more rigorous at assessing risk. I am not suggesting that women are better than men. I am advocating that we must acknowledge, respect and actively seek people with these qualities so that they can complement those who have different leadership styles and attributes.

Achieving gender diversity requires those appointing to senior positions to recruit people who may not be like them. But psychology tells us that this is hard, because we unconsciously favour people in our own image, who are like us. The Snowy White Peaks report by Roger Kline corroborates this theory expressing concern with the lack of non-white people at senior NHS level, coupled with the under-representation of women. His report is critical of NHS recruitment processes which are not addressing this imbalance.

There is a concerned narrative, frequently recounted to me, that in order to gain and succeed in senior positions women have adopted some of the more negative leadership qualities that are often attributed to men. Examples include being dominant, aggressive, dispassionate, overbearing or demanding. It is not surprising that some women choose to adopt these traits as, historically, such attributes were considered to be synonymous with strong leadership and, despite high confidence in their own ability, women report low confidence in reaching the top compared with men. Worse still, research from Stanford concurs with their hunch, reporting that women who exhibit masculine traits were more likely to be promoted than those who did not.

This causes two big problems. First, in behaving like men, women risk losing a real sense of their authentic self, their professional identity and their personal power as a woman. And second, the board or committee that they participate in is losing out on gaining the balance in perspective that they would bring as a woman.

In order to change the culture of leadership and what is expected of leaders, individual women must stay true to their unique authentic leadership self, even when faced with an environment that does not (yet) fully recognise the benefits. They must nurture their own true style that comes from deep within. The job of the rest of us is to support, sponsor, encourage and advocate for such women. Many enlightened leadership courses are encouraging women to find their true inner leader and to cherish the essence of who they are. Embodying this is the new power that women can unlock. They can and must demonstrate their value through authentic leadership, rather than conforming to quasi outmoded leadership ideology. This will send the powerful message that women are confident and proud to be recognised, acknowledged and appreciated as first-class women, not second-class men.

(This article was first Published on Friday 7 November 2014 in The Guardian Healthcare Professionals Network).

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