More women in boardrooms by 2020

Research on women’s lack of representation in leadership roles by Professor Ruth Sealy from the University of Exeter’s Business School is informing the NHS’s strategy for achieving gender parity on its boards by 2020.

The report, Women on NHS Boards: 50-50 by 2020, is the first comprehensive in-depth analysis of data on women in senior positions in the NHS, and is based on information collected from 452 trusts, commissioning groups and arm’s-length bodies.

Funded by NHS Employers and NHS Improvement, the research reveals that the representation of women on boards varied from 8.3 per cent to 80 per cent, with an average of 41 per cent. And while the percentage of female chief executives – 42.6 per cent – is encouraging, women are still under-represented in other senior roles, where only 26.3 per cent of finance directors and 24.6 per cent of medical directors are women. 

NHS Employers CEO Daniel Mortimer said: "At a time when the NHS is experiencing myriad challenges, it is vital we make full use of the wealth of talent at our disposal, not just some of it. Research has shown time and time again that diversity improves the quality of decision making, improves outcomes and ultimately improves the wellbeing of staff."

Mr Mortimer added that equality and diversity is key to a successful health service: "If NHS staff feel motivated and productive then this has to be good news for patients."

Professor Sealy previously led the research for a government-backed annual report of women on the UK’s largest listed corporate boards, known as the Female FTSE Report (2007-2016).

Professor Sealy said: "Women ‘outperform’ men at every level of education up to post-graduate level, and in some professions, including law and medicine, this has been the case for 25 years. Yet when we look at the leadership of most corporate and professional organisations, the proportion of women holding top positions is still very small – there are just five female CEOs and less than 10 per cent of executive board directorships held by women in the FTSE 100 listed companies."

Professor Sealy continued: "Despite the fact that challenges and barriers have been identified at individual, organisational and societal levels, there is often confusion and disagreement about how these issues should be addressed and by whom. Progress is being made, but we still have a long way to go. My research aims to address questions at multiple levels to contribute positively to increasing women’s representation in leadership positions."

Professor Sealy is also working with one of the Big Four professional service firms to look at leadership emergence amongst non-stereotypical leaders and the role played by senior mentors in pursuing greater opportunities for women and ethnic minorities. She also regularly comments on equality issues in the press, and has also written for The Times and Ethical Boardroom on policy-level interventions to address gender imbalance. As a result of her work with the NHS, she is currently the sole academic and only non-NHS representative on the NHS Women on Board Steering Group.