HBI Deals+Insights / News

Women leading in health care

The health care sector is dominated by women. They make up around 70% of the health care workforce – so why are there so few in senior leadership positions?

This is not a problem unique to health care, of course. Most industries have low female representation in leadership but the key difference here is, this is astonishingly low if you compare it to the percentage of the workforce. 

Can this really be blamed on career disruption due to having a family or the subsequent responsibilities? The rate of return to work after pregnancy for Europe is pretty high but support in the workplace varies massively, both by country and company. If you talk to the women surrounding you, you will no doubt hear stories of being pushed out of work, being passed over for promotions, and/or no longer being considered part of the team. You will also hear from those who are grateful for being able to continue to work and working flexible hours, but frustrated as they don’t feel they can go for the promotion because they should just be grateful.

All of these are common and with the weight of the care responsibilities on women, many find it difficult to envisage themselves in leadership roles whilst having to duck out at 3.30pm to pick the kids up. 

While organisations can most definitely take some of the responsibility for being more flexible and accommodating for both parents, of course the ultimate problem is often that this responsibility is usually still with the woman – even in some of the most equal relationships, if childcare fails the responsibility often is with the woman to rearrange and organise their care.

Could the ability to lead and credibility around female leadership be to blame? Talk about female leadership and inevitably someone will tell you about a bad female manager they or a friend may have encountered, there will be some long and winding story whose ultimate point will be that one bad female leader means that every woman will make a bad leader.  My answer to that is always how many bad male leaders have you had and how can we analyse the behaviour of both?

When women began to take leadership roles, many thought they had to emulate men (some still do), after all they were the inspiration, right? But of course you can’t lead like someone else. You have to use your own qualities and personality, so for many women actually stepping into leadership in their own shoes whether they were four inch stilettos or doc martin boots or something in between, they had to feel comfort in doing that. Female leadership needs to be celebrated in order to show the next generation of female leaders how to lead. It is so important for female leaders in organisations to mentor other women, even across industry and create opportunities for networking. Cross-industry networks can really help with skilled gender balanced recruitment too.

Is it that women don’t actually want to lead? For some women this is true, but to make an assumption that a woman doesn’t want to lead, without asking them is in itself gender bias. Some women go into health care to do care and want to avoid management, but ultimately some want to make a difference and understand that leadership roles may give them an even bigger opportunity to do that. Understanding career pathways is of huge benefit here, as is the networking and mentoring we discussed earlier. 

Throughout health care female leadership is really important, from care, management, strategy and policy. Women need women to represent their interests in health care. So why aren’t women taking more top seats? Women and men are roughly the same in terms of promotions to managers but from senior leadership level up there are still large inequalities. Yes the above do have an impact, but they are not the whole story. 

There is still an issue with the perception of leadership and it being weighted male, job descriptions are often overly masculine and aggressive for leadership roles. Traits in women are often assessed differently to men, for example what is serious in a man could be moody for a woman. A common comment across industries is to do with readiness of the talent pool but if the women in the organisation are not being nurtured like the men are then the situation never improves, hence the importance of mentoring. 

Perhaps though one of the most important things is visibility, we need to look at normalising seeing women in top roles in every sector around the world, celebrating their achievements, not their clothes, not who they are married to, not whether they smiled, not whether they have just given birth and lost 10 pounds, just normalising their performance in their job.

Last week HBI celebrated Sophie Boissard’s handling of Korian – she has absolutely led with empathy and in a manner that prompted share prices to jump. This sector is filled with amazing female leaders who are setting examples for us all, men included, on how to be better leaders. Over the next few months we will be featuring women that are doing exactly that, and we are really excited to have some of the leading women in this industry join us at this years HBI conference.


We would welcome your thoughts on this story. Email your views to Kirsty Withams or call 0207 183 3779.