It’s important to smash glass ceilings holding back women – Kirstie Stott

The Programme Lead for the NHS Leadership Academy’s Graduate Management Training Scheme looks at how the NHS is playing an important role in gender equality:

Having managed to free myself from the kitchen, household chores, cooking the dinner for my husband and caring for my two children, I sit down and take off my apron to write this blog…..

I jest somewhat here as I actually work full-time in the NHS and am far from a domestic goddess!

However, an article I read last week (which I won’t give the time of day to promote with a link here) made me feel like I had just stepped back into the 1950s. The article talked about how the feminisation of the medical profession was the cause for the strikes, basically as women want their cake and to eat it.

Er, yes we do, and why shouldn’t we?

Yes, you may have guessed, I am a feminist, but what does that really mean? Well in simple terms, I believe in equality and believe that a more equal gender split in senior leadership within and across the health and social care would enable a different culture within organisations and would change some of the dynamics and traditions we see at the top of our systems currently.

This in turn would change relationships with our staff and ultimately lead to better patient outcomes. I also believe that this shift in diversity would enable more innovation and new ways of working which is much needed at present.

We know that inequalities still exist and that society favours the man, with women having historically been subordinate and men more dominant in society and the work place.

Women are still seen as the main care provider to children and also the ones who have time out of work to have children – society perceives this as a female role – and until we change perceptions and expectations of societal norms, it will continue to be challenging to change the flexibility that is needed within work places to enable more women to grow and develop into their full potential.

Gender inequality is still very much a disease of today’s society. This is evidenced in pay inequalities which are still present and by the percentage of women in senior public sector roles. You only have to look at the senior teams within the NHS to see that if you are a white, middle aged (possibly middle class) male you are more likely to achieve an executive role.

However, the NHS performs better on gender equality in senior posts than most sectors with 41% of Chief Executives and 80% of HR directors being women.  It seems, therefore, that we are ahead of the game in leading the smash of the ‘glass ceiling’ and for me there is now a burning ambition to be worldwide exemplars and leaders of the benefits to our society through closing the gender equality gap in senior leadership positions.

Women are not to blame. This is the key message I want to get across in this blog.  How many times have I heard the following used as reasons why women are not reaching senior positions as much as men?


  • Don’t ‘lean in’ as much as men
  • Are not as confident as men
  • Are not very good at selling themselves
  • Don’t aspire to senior roles
  • Are not as resilient as men
  • Not prepared to work as long hours as men
  • Are unable to network as well as men
  • Don’t speak up as much as men in meetings

It’s time to stop blaming women as the cause of the problem. It’s easy to do and I think that many women shoulder this blame relatively easily. I would encourage women to push back on this. Is confidence really a gender specific issue?

I have attended many gender equality events and hardly ever do I see men in attendance? Why is this? I was frustrated and disappointed when the HSJ Women’s Network voted to keep men out in order to provide a safe space for women to regroup.

Who holds the majority of senior positions currently in the NHS? Who are the people in a position to support, encourage and actually appoint women to these senior roles? Yes its men, so why would you not involve them in the conversation?

We need to be realistic about why gender inequality still exists and we need to work together to realise the benefits and solutions to this.

I am interested to know why more men don’t actively support gender equality (actively being the key word). Men need to take a more leading role in making this happen. So, if you are a male leader, I would urge you to not rely on women in your organisation to make this happen, but to be seen as a positive role model, challenge normal practice and the flexibility you offer staff and to recruit people who are not the same as you.

If men don’t join the conversations, I fear things will never change. Equality is everyone’s responsibility.

Image of Kirstie StottKirstie Stott trained as a Registered General Nurse in 1998 and has worked in a clinical capacity for 14 years, and was the youngest national ECP.

She currently works at the NHS Leadership Academy as Programme Lead for the Graduate Management Training Scheme of which she is also an Alumni.

Kirstie leads the National Network Health and Social Care Voices @HSCVoices and is also a Partner in the National, Inspiring Leaders Network offering a programme of inclusive leadership development.

Kirstie has written many publications about her passion, which is inclusion, diversity and equality in leadership. She was recognised as one of the HSJ Rising Stars 2015.

Occasionally we invite guest bloggers to write posts for NHS England. Those posts are marked as authored by “Guest blogs”.

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  1. KH says:

    Well said Kirstie. Do the majority of men actually think about the issue at all? I fear many don’t, whether they support gender equality in theory or not. Not because they don’t care, just because they have no reason to think about it due to it not affecting them or they haven’t drawn the links between how it does affect them e.g. a female partner who is not being promoted due to gender inequality in their own workplace.

  2. AC says:

    Thanks Kirstie, this article certainly reinforces the truths about gender inequality which can both be conscious and unconsciously formulated.

    However, it does pose the question about how men specifically, as leaders in the NHS, actively support gender equality?

    ” I was frustrated and disappointed when the HSJ Women’s Network voted to keep men out”
    “Men need to take a more leading role in making this happen”

    There are lots of issues with the gender split by banding. With a workforce 75%< women yet 59% male CEOs; how we identify and support an equal opportunity for progression regardless of gender to create a leadership group representative of the public served (as we would for BME via WRES) is important.

    While creating diverse boards has been proven to aid innovative ideas and improved delivery of service, introducing quotas and positive discrimination can be problematic and cause friction between staff of both genders; males who didn't get the job because of their anatomy and females who can be perceived as to "only get the job" because of their anatomy.

    I would look at the effectiveness of succession planning and identifying of top female talent; linking them with a senior mentor (one of the 41% female CEOs) to show them that carrying family values as well as succeeding at work is possible. When identifying top talent, it would then be possible to understand reasons for if certain demographics wanted to pull out, or didn't have the ambition.

  3. Catherine says:

    This is a really interesting article. I am a senior operational manager in an Acute Trust. I work full time and I work well over and above my 37.5 hours.Yet I still feel guilty about trying to fulfil a role as a a mother and a manager. I do work a flexible week – compressing my hours into four days. However, what I find interesting is that it is not only men who are difficult about my hours – there are a number of female colleagues who clearly don’t support my flexible working. I feel that I have to work faster and harder than anyone else full time to prove my worth. It makes working an uphill struggle. I won’t be beaten though. I will have my day off with my son each week. It is worth having every challenging conversation. My husband is supportive of this but there is definitely still a feeling that it is my duty to look after a poorly little one. I strongly believe that you can have a successful career and be a parent – it just means you have to be that bit more resillient than before. I am eager for real equality and flexible working to be accepted.

  4. Stuart Dixon says:

    So what is a glass ceiling precisely? If you mean grooming one colleague for a career as opposed to actively excluding another equal or better qualified colleague – then that works all ways.