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Is the career ladder for women missing some rungs?

Published in LaingBuisson Healthcare Markets July 2017

When HSJ announced this year’s top NHS trust chief executives, it was a welcome sign of progress that half of the top 10 positions went to female CEOs.

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Better still, the report that accompanied the list made it clear that each of the women had achieved this status for different reasons. It was not because they happened to be female.

And of course this is how it should be. The long and ongoing campaign to ensure diversity in the workplace is primarily about equality of opportunity - the recognition that everybody with talent and drive, regardless of their gender, ethnicity or background, should be able to rise to the top of their organisations.

A major part of that challenge is to ensure the stream of talent is a steady stream. In other words, that good people are progressing at all levels of the business. It is not enough to ensure women are represented at the top levels: the search for good female talent needs to be addressed at every level to ensure that the path to success is clear and visible for everybody.

Our sector is well known as an employer of choice for women. Walk the corridors of any healthcare centre - hospital, clinic, surgery - and you will see a significant number of hardworking female employees working alongside their male counterparts. But if you walk around the offices on floors accommodating those at more senior levels, the ratio might look very different.

At board level, the director of nursing may well be female, as the path to career progression is arguably clearer for them. There is strong female representation at all levels of nursing. But, for female non-medical professionals, the rise to CFO or COO level can be a significant challenge if their intermediate career path is not clear.

This places a responsibility on the Chairs and Chief Executives not simply to represent diversity at board level but also to ensure there is a clear promotion path to those roles at lower levels of the organisation. In order to recruit and retain the best talent, companies need to show women that there is a path to progress to the highest levels of the organisation.

In healthcare, we need to ensure that, at all levels of the organisation, our employees reflect the extraordinary variety and diversity of our patients - recognising and respecting their values and anticipating their needs.

This is why so many commercial businesses are now adopting diversity training among their staff - adopting good recruitment practices is good for business. Sales staff need to forge good relationships with customers, and they have a head start when they share similar cultural backgrounds and interests.

There is even some evidence that companies that actively pursue workplace diversity perform better than their counterparts - and are more attractive to investors. Consultants at McKinsey have found that the companies across all sectors with the most women on their boards significantly and consistently outperform those comprised only of men – by 41 per cent in terms of return on equity and by 56 per cent in terms of operating results.

But there is still much progress to be made. I was at a healthcare conference for senior leaders recently with around 50 delegates. Only four of them were women. Of the 13 speakers only one was a woman: me. For women there still seem to be some rungs missing in the middle of the career ladder.

Fiona Booth, AIHO Chief Executive