Matt Hancock: Gender Equality Vital for NHS Future

Edna Astbury-Ward

April 26, 2019

MANCHESTER - Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health & Social Care delivered a speech to the 938 delegates at the Royal College of Physicians annual conference in Manchester promising to tackle gender, race, and other inequalities in the NHS in England.

He began with a dedication to the health personnel who assisted at the time of the Manchester Arena bombing 2 years ago: "The NHS is a place where we stand strong together" and he went on to say that he thought of the NHS as a 'family', although some groans were heard from the audience at this point.

Mr Hancock said the NHS hadn't always been there for its own 'family' members. He urged delegates to do better, he noted that all too often confrontation took the place of collaboration and that this was not the way to settle differences.

Recruitment and Retention

The Secretary of State accepted that "We need more people", which prompted more groans from delegates, and there was little detail on how he'd go about achieving this.

He was keen to point out that the Government is providing the "longest and largest cash injection in the history of the NHS".

He focused on three areas where he intended to spend some of this money, including recruitment and retention of staff, in his words "attracting the brightest and the best from abroad and making them feel more at home in the UK".

However, he didn't say how he was going to prevent the 1 in 11, or 100,000 staff who leave the NHS for good every year from going. He acknowledged that this required urgent attention.

Delegates may not have been reassured that making the NHS a "brilliant place to work for everyone" would suffice.

Mr Hancock talked about the importance of improving NHS technology: "Technology that frees up your time to focus on patients, not technology that slows you down with multiple log-ins and incompatible systems."

Gender Inequality

Mr Hancock said he recognised that a culture of bullying, harassment and a significant gender pay gap, which currently stands at 23%, needed a much more long-term approach.

"Over half of junior doctors are women, but at consultant level it's only a third. Women are under-represented as surgeons and over-represented in lower-paid specialties."

He said 77% of the 1.3 million NHS workforce was female, and inequality would not be tolerated any longer.

"Gender equality is the only way we can hope to build an NHS team fit for the future," he said and is prioritising three areas to address this:

  • More support and mentoring to get more women into senior leadership roles

  • More flexible working

  • Ending discrimination and creating a compassionate culture

"At board level," he said, "we need to recruit 500 more women to reach gender balance across the NHS."

He agreed with the findings of a review into why many women earn less than men in the NHS: "We need a culture of transparency in pay, promotion and reward if we’re going to close the gender pay gap.

"And it's not just gender. Forty percent of hospital doctors and 20% of NHS nurses are from an ethnic minority background, but at board level that figure is only 6%.

"Only by embracing equality of opportunity can we address staff shortages and get the people we need to create a sustainable NHS that'll be there for all of us, for generations to come."

Caring and Compassion

Mr Hancock continued to emphasise the importance of caring and compassion, not only for patients but importantly for each other in the NHS, "ending discrimination, bullying and harassment and creating a compassionate culture.

"This really hit home for me recently when Dr Zoe Norris and Dr Katie Bramall-Stainer spoke out about sexism and harassment by male colleagues. And they weren’t alone. Other women have had the courage to speak up."

Mr Hancock referred to the Doctors Association UK asking fellow doctors to share their stories on social media as part of the #NHSMeToo campaign: "There were stories about doctors who couldn’t get time off to attend a wedding or a funeral. I have doctors in my family who have often missed important family events because the rota says no. And there were stories about doctors who were told they had to work even when they were sick or had gone through a personal trauma."

He was also clear that in order to achieve his vision of the NHS being a "brilliant" place to work for all, that this would involve investment into more flexible working patterns and that doctors, especially female doctors should no longer be driven out of the NHS into agency work simply because agencies have the technology to do this, whist the NHS lags behind in its implementation, despite its commitment to publishing work rotas 6 weeks in advance.

Despite lauding diversity, compassion and closing the gender pay gap as a panacea for the current NHS environment, not all delegates were convinced.

Solving Problems

During questions at the end of the speech one male doctor from an ethnic minority challenged Mr Hancock's message: "I have been in the NHS 18 years and I honestly cannot think of any occasion when I have been discriminated against … and I do not know of anybody who was paid less because she was a woman, or was not given promotion because she was a woman. I definitely do not understand why there is so much concern about gender discrimination, which gives me a cynical thought…you probably like to divert this topic about discrimination because it makes you look good, it makes you look compassionate and it doesn't cost you a penny!

"Doctors who go to Australia go there not because they are discriminated against but because they are paid better. There is a culture of pitching man against woman and religious minority against religious minority…."

Mr Hancock told the delegate: "Sir, you're completely wrong, completely wrong."

He continued: "I'm delighted you don't feel you've been discriminated against and as a man, you probably haven't noticed the gender pay gap.

"Just because you haven't seen it… doesn't mean it doesn't exist, look at the evidence, look at the data, look at how were going to improve our NHS, we're not going to do it by ignoring the problems that the evidence shows exists. We're going to fix those problems."

Before leaving the stage, Mr Hancock concluded: "I look forward to working with all the rest of you to solve this problem."

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