This year’s International Women’s Day resonates with another campaign being run by Sport England, This Girl Can. Both campaigns create a vision of a world in which gender equality and enabling women to achieve their potential are achievable. They can also help us to reflect on the assumptions we make about women and the roles they hold in health care. For example, the Sport England campaign has enabled frank conversations about stereotypes based on women’s physical form as opposed to their ability.
Increasing the number of women in leadership roles is a goal for many men and women across the world. Many column inches have been devoted to making sense of ‘herstory’ and the current situation. Many top-down initiatives have been started. What seems to be needed in health and care is a sustained movement in which both men and women make good on the commitments to reduce and remove the barriers to women advancing their careers and achieving their potential on equal terms with their male colleagues.
One barrier that has featured consistently in stories of women seeking to progress has been the way in which flexible working practices are handled. Few organisations in health will espouse anything other than flexible working practices, yet when you look beneath the surface, attitudes towards those who take up flexible working (including job shares) has been enough to dissuade many from asking for this. Recent work on Advancing Women in Medicine has shown that surgery and some medical specialties are not seen as an attractive option for women who may require more flexibility than the current training process and culture permit.
Linked to this is a belief held by some men and women that working part time means you are only partially capable or committed. This stigma has made it difficult for some people to continue balancing work with familial or caring responsibilities and has resulted in a loss to the NHS of a committed and talented part of the workforce. Creating an inclusive culture involves embracing diverse work patterns for men and women and changing the ingrained organisational and cultural attitudes about how work is organised. This will go some way towards making the NHS more attractive to women and to mature workers who still have much to contribute but for whom the traditional work day is too long. #MakeItHappen can make a difference to health in the UK if we take this opportunity to address the issue of flexible working.
These issues also matter to the ‘millennial’ generation, who are coming into the workforce with more education and in greater numbers than any previous generation. We have the opportunity now, more than at any other time, to create inclusive cultures that enable women to decide for themselves what they want to be, and to accept that what women want and need (due in part to biological factors specific to women) will vary throughout their lives.
International Women’s Day 2015 urges everyone around the world to #MakeItHappen. Embracing flexible working patterns may seem a small change, but #hellomynameis proved that small changes can make big differences. I am therefore inviting workforce leads and leaders in health and care to join me on the hashtag #NHSFlex to start discussing what we can do to bring about this change and to help attract and retain talent.