Forging Ahead: International Women’s Day 2021

By Catherine Best @CBest_23

International Women’s Day 8th March 2021

In November 2020, UN Women (2020) announced this year’s theme of International Women’s Day to be about Women in Leadership.

At a time of immense global upheaval “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world” (UN, 2020) recognises and celebrates the phenomenal global efforts of women and girls to create a more fair and equal future and in these extraordinary times, support recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

2020; ironically deemed the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife by the World Health Organisation, undeniably shone a global spotlight on the amazing contribution made by the nursing profession in the battle against Covid-19, without which, the consequences, as severe as they currently are, could be much worse. Unquestionably, recovery from the impact of the pandemic will be long and arduous; nevertheless, with the commitment of women who make up 70% of workers within the global health and social care sector (ILO, 2017), we can make this a reality. But to do this requires more women nurse leaders at the helm and their full and effective participation in healthcare leadership. Disappointingly however, only 25% of women are in senior roles (WHO, n.d.). This discrepancy, albeit perhaps to a lesser degree, is no more evident than within our very own NHS.

A National Challenge

In 2017 the NHS launched an ambitious target, to create gender parity within NHS Trust Boards by 2020 (Sealy, 2017). Disappointingly, the NHS has failed to achieve this target with only 44.7% of those on NHS Trust Boards in England being women, although encouragingly this equates to an increase of almost 5% on the 2017 figure (Sealy, 2020).

These results may appear promising; however, it remains evident that gender inequity, at least within NHS leadership, requires more progress (NHE, 2020).

Despite strong evidence that nurses and women on boards, encourage collaboration and inclusivity; promote goodwill and drive forward agendas, whilst challenging the status quo, ‘more than their counterparts’ (Sundean and McGrath, 2016 cited in Walton et al., 2020, p.332), there are still too few women making critical decisions and leading the national workforce.

So, by recognising and cultivating qualities that support leadership skills including self-awareness, self-management and personal integrity (NHS Leadership Academy 2011), and by encouraging those who exhibit leadership behaviours including; trust, innovation, drive; team building and problem solving (Weber et al., 2015), women nurse leaders of today can do much to develop our women nurse leaders of tomorrow.

Furthermore, research undertaken by Sarto and Veronesi, (2016) indicates that the growing presence of clinicians in leadership roles can promote credibility, encourage greater adoption of policy and increase the emphasis on patient care. This is supported by (Anandaciva, et al., 2018) who argue that clinical leadership is a critical factor in improving the performance of health care organisations. Therefore, with almost 90% of nurses identifying as female within the UK, (NMC, 2020) action taken to support nurses to reach board level it could be argued also has the potential to increase women on boards.

Striking the Pose

This year on International Women’ Day we are all encouraged to #ChoosetoChallenge, by taking responsibility for our thoughts and actions and to show solidarity by raising our hands high.

Striking the pose is an obvious opportunity to show solidarity for women in leadership, however it’s not just a standardised pose we need, its real solid, action – Big or small.

So, if you are an aspiring ‘woman in leadership’ you could start by, understanding what it takes to be a strong and effective leader and make it happen by embracing every learning opportunity available to you.

As a woman nurse leader, you could be part of the solution by, supporting the ambitions of our future women nurse leaders and be an inspiration by being a positive and accountable role model.

Demonstrating solidarity as women may be an obvious way forward in the challenge to increase women in leadership, however, Salles and Choo (2020) argue that rather than simply burdening women leaders with the obligation to help women get to the top, shouldn’t it be everyone’s responsibility to do this? An interesting viewpoint, especially as they go on to argue that perhaps, an indicator of equity, could be the point at which we release women from this responsibility.

Until the time comes however, that we declare that gender inequality no longer exists, then an obvious solution would be to continue to encourage solidarity amongst women and International Women’s Day aims to do this.


Every year we celebrate the amazing contribution that women make to a global community and within healthcare, our commitment to ensuring global health.

With women making up the majority of all workers in the global health and social care sector, we have proven our value to a world that needed us to step up to a global challenge and demonstrate courage, conviction and compassion in times of immense adversity.

Working in some of the most challenging environments we have ever known, women healthcare workers, have made a resounding contribution, to the health of our nation; indeed, our world. So, it’s time to take our rightful place as senior leaders on both a national and global healthcare platform.

2021 is the year when we celebrate the Year of the Healthcare Worker in recognition of the magnificent work undertaken by all our healthcare professionals.

Nurses, through this platform, can continue to build on the unprecedented Year of the Nurse and Midwife by embracing all that 2021 and indeed all future years have to offer.

Driving the change still so badly needed within healthcare leadership requires forward focus, with women continuing to support women, until gender parity is achieved.

International Women’s Day gives women a voice, one which becomes stronger as we unite against adversity and inequality. Let’s grasp this opportunity with both hands and use it wisely.


Anandaciva, S. Ward, D. Randhawa, M. Edge, R. (2018) Leadership in today’s NHS. Delivering the Impossible. Available from: [2nd March 2021].

International Labour Organisation (2017) Report for discussion at the Tripartite Meeting on Improving Employment and Working Conditions in Health Services. Geneva: International Labour Organization.

National Health Executive (2020) Gender equality in NHS leadership requires further progress. Available from: <> [Accessed 1st March 2021].

NHS Leadership Academy (2011) Clinical Leadership Competency Framework. London: NHS.

Nursing and Midwifery Council (2020) Mid-year update – 1 April -30 September 2020. Available from: [Accessed 5th March, 2021].

Salles, A. and Choo EK. (2020) The Penumbra. Queen Bee phenomenon: a consequence ofthe hive. The Lancet, 395, p. 940.

Sarto F, Veronesi G. (2016). Clinical leadership and hospital performance: assessing the evidence base. Biomed Central Health Services Research, 16, (suppl 2), p 169. doi 10.1186/s12913-016-1395-5.

Sealy, R. (2020) NHS Women on Boards 50:50 by 2020 Action for equality – the time is now.  London: NHS Employers and NHS Improvement.

Sealy, R (2017) NHS Women on Boards 50:50 by 2020. London: NHS Employers and NHS Improvement.

Sundean LJ, and McGrath JM. (2016) A metasynthesis exploring nurses and women on governing boards. Journal of  Nursing Administration 46 (9) September pp. 455‐461. Cited in: Walton, AL. McLennan, D. and Flynt Mullinix, C. (2020) Encouragement: The key to increasing the number of nurses serving on boards Nursing Forum, 55 January, pp. 331-340.

United Nations Women (2020) International Women’s Day 2021 theme – “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”. Available from: <>. [Accessed 28th February 2021]

Weber, E. Ward, J. and Walsh T. (2015) Nurse leader competencies: a toolkit for success. Nursing Management, 46 (12) December, pp. 47-50.

World Health Organisation (n.d.) Delivered by women, led by men: a gender and equity analysis of the global health and social workforce. Available from:  <> [Accessed 27th February 2021]

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