Analysis

Yes, the new NHS CEO is a woman. Is this important? Probably. Should it be? Probably not.

Kate Pogson

Yesterday, it was announced that Amanda Pritchard, Simon Stevens’ deputy, has been appointed as the new Chief Executive of NHS England, following two years as Chief Operating Officer.

While the resulting coverage focussed on the implication that a promotion from within signalled the Government’s desire for continuity as the health service resets and rebuilds in the aftermath of COVID (if indeed we are anywhere near the aftermath yet), it also was keen to point out that Pritchard is the first female NHS head since its creation in 1948.

Twitter was awash with congratulations for Pritchard, including from many senior NHS leaders and partners, but it was the fact she is female that seemed to dominate the print and social coverage of the appointment. Should it matter?  Here is a person appointed because of their demonstrable leadership skills, their intimate knowledge of the health system (unlike some of the reported corporate candidates) and supposedly their ability to work with Government to ensure the NHS in England gets the support it needs throughout the pandemic and beyond.  And with a high percentage of female leadership within the NHS perhaps it is a surprise it didn’t happen sooner.  So, why is the fact she is a woman emphasised so significantly?

On the one hand, I get it.  The NHS is the biggest employer in Europe, with 1.3 million employees, three-quarters of whom are women.  This appointment comes when women account for just 6 per cent of FTSE 100 CEOs and are reported to be paid much less.  Representation of capable, skilled women in leadership roles, when the body of the working staff are also women, is a good thing.  Chapman University in California, writing in a meta-analysis, suggested female leaders, on average, lead more democratically, show transformational leadership and develop their reports’ potential.  And yes, strong visibility of senior female leaders might have a positive effect on future generations looking to see what opportunities lie ahead for them in the years ahead.

But on the other hand, by prefixing Pritchard’s appointment with her gender, are we not just adding to the feeling of a divide?  That when there is a female senior appointment, they are just that, a female senior appointment; when a man is promoted, he is simply a senior appointment.  When Emma Walmsley was appointed CEO of GSK in 2016, a write up in the Daily Mail announced ‘mother of four (with one VERY understanding husband) is made boss of Britain’s third biggest company)’.  I just couldn’t believe that coverage of a male appointment would report on their private set-up.  It also makes me question the number of studies asking workers if they prefer female or male leadership styles? Yes, understanding preferred leadership styles might help those leaders better flex their behaviours and communications to unlock the potential of their teams, but why do they have to be characterised by gender traits?

Maybe one day it won’t matter.  We have had two female Prime Ministers, a female head of the International Monetary Fund and a female head of the European Commission.  Hopefully we will see female managers of men’s football teams and a greater proportion of women in corporate leadership roles.  Maybe in 20 years’ time when my daughter enters the workforce (help us all), newspapers and social media (or whatever it looks like then) won’t feel the need to say ‘X company appoints its 3rd female CEO’ and instead the appointment will be devoid of any gender description. I guess we will see.