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Still a man’s world?

Women may be in the majority in the population at large, but they are still thin on the ground in prominent positions.  Helen Mooney takes stock

There’s no denying it: the UK is still largely run by men. The Sex and Power 2013: Who Runs Britain? report, published by the Counting Women In coalition, found that women were missing from top roles in politics and public life.  

The figures are stark. Around one MP in four is a woman and 17 per cent of the cabinet are female. Just five per cent of national newspaper editors are female, while 15 per cent of those appointed as a police and crime commissioner in England and Wales are women.

In April, the Cranfield School of Management revealed that over the past six months the number of FTSE 100 board appointments going to women dropped from 44 per cent to 26 per cent, with a similar fall in the FTSE 250.

This is despite the setting of a voluntary target three years ago for all FTSE 100 boards to be comprised of 25 per cent women by 2015.  

A similar picture emerges in the NHS, which faces a chronic shortage of women in senior positions as female medical staff hit a glass ceiling.

There is no question that physiotherapy is largely a female-dominated profession with women accounting for around 80 per cent of qualified CSP members.

And, while it’s true that NHS-employed female physiotherapists do rise up the ranks and become senior managers, in the majority of cases this ascent stops at senior physiotherapy and therapy service positions.

Women physiotherapists, along with their female medical colleagues, are still noticeable in their absence in both senior NHS positions at board level.

Indeed despite the fact that women make up nearly three quarters of the total NHS workforce, only a third of NHS chief executives are women.

Strong female role models

Karen Middleton is one of the few female physiotherapists to have made it to the top.  As the chief allied health professions officer for at the Department of Health, she previously held several senior positions in the NHS.

She says that throughout her career she has had some ‘very strong female role models as chief executives’.

‘These women have also taken the time to help me in my development and I think this has had quite a profound effect on me and my career.’

She admits that, not having had children, she has never had to face the issue of taking a career break or finding appropriate childcare but also wonders if women lack confidence about applying for senior positions.

‘It does appear to me that men going for senior positions are more comfortable not necessarily knowing the job inside out whereas women will only apply for a position if they can ensure they can do the job.’

Dr Helena Johnson, the CSP’s chair of Council, agrees that having senior female mentors can be key.

Reflecting on her own physiotherapy career, she says she was fortunate to come across a number of women in senior positions who nurtured her ambitions.

‘They encouraged me to do things that I might not have had the confidence to put myself forward for,’ she admits.

Dr Johnson also believes that in many ways women now have many more opportunities than were available to them to or three decades ago.

‘It’s more acceptable to take maternity leave and come back to work flexibly, but you can’t expect things to be handed to you on a plate. Women need to push against the barriers and put themselves forward,’ she says.

But what about those female physiotherapists who have gone into public life in other ways?

Safe circles of support

Pauline Lucas is a paediatric physiotherapist who chairs the Conservative Women’s Organisation, a network for women in the UK Conservative party.

She says that women interested in getting into politics, and public life in general, as well as senior managerial positions, need access to networks.

‘Men go to the pub or do a sport together and have access to their informal career support networks in that way. Women are not so good at that and I think what we need to do is form safe circles of networks of care while recognising that women do it differently, they speak differently and come to senior positions with a different voice.’

Helen Harrison, a physiotherapist who runs her own practice in Northamptonshire, agrees. Currently on the Conservative Party candidate list for the 2015 general election, she believes that much of the reason women do not rise to the top in politics and public life is that they lack of confidence in themselves.

‘I do wonder if this is down to many women taking a career break to have children just as their confidence is growing.’

She admits to having had a lack of confidence herself. ‘Once I had the idea to try going into politics and to try and become MP, I spent several months telling myself that I was not clever enough or confident enough.’

But it’s only now that her children are teenagers that she has the ‘spare capacity’ to juggle work, a political career and family life.

Retired physio and Labour councillor for Trafford Jane Baugh agrees that handling work and childcare responsibilities while having a political career is a major challenge.

Ms Baugh became a councillor in 1990 and says she had a lot of support from her husband, although she admits to being forced to take her children along to some council meetings.

‘Politics is very male dominated because it takes up a lot of time. How can you go to a meeting almost every night of the week if you have young children at home? It is very, very hard and you have got to be very passionate,’ she says.

So what can be done to get more women into positions of power?

At the TUC Women’s Conference in March, Kim Gainsborough moved a motion on behalf of the CSP calling on unions to support the continuing efforts by the TUC to highlight this waste of talent.

She also called for more vigorous action to be taken by the government and others to redress the current inbalance of power in society.

The TUC, supported by affiliated trade unions including the CSP, has been a long-term and vigorous campaigner for equal rights for women in the workplace and the wider community

According to Ms Gainsborough, for women to be able to move up the ranks they need more opportunities for flexible and part-time working in senior positions.

She also says organisations should be forced to carry out equal pay audits and must tackle the ‘unconscious bias’ against women. fl

Top Tips for career progression

  • Believe in yourself and apply for a job even if you lack some qualifications in the ‘job spec’
  • You can make progress in your career later in life when you have more time
  • Good affordable childcare arrangements are crucial if you have young children, as is the choice to work flexibly
  • Finding a senior woman mentor to help support your career progression can be invaluable


Lesley Mercer, TUC president and the CSP’s director of employee relations, says: ‘With austerity hitting women and their families hard in the UK, I have made the need to challenge inequality one of the key themes of the TUC presidency.  

‘This means equality in its widest sense, tackling discrimination of course, but also tackling income inequality, tax inequality and health inequality as well as unequal power in the workplace.

‘The TUC is helping to lead the way in women’s representation. For example, Francis O’Grady is the first woman general secretary in the TUC’s 150-year history.  

‘With Bernadette Segal installed as the general secretary of the European TUC and Sharan Burrow as general secretary of the international TUC, we have three incredibly talented women at the top of the trade union movement.  

‘More than half of all trade union members are now women and more of them are becoming trade union representatives at every level.  

‘What a contrast to the position of women MPs and women in other parts of public life. Less than a quarter of MPs are women and this figure has increased by just under 4 per cent in the past 12 years.

As women in trade unions we need to support and encourage each other on a day-to-day basis more than ever.’

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