The Blog

How Do Women Define Power?

Last week we saw the results of Radio 4's Woman's Hour Power List. I thought it was wonderful that the Queen came top of the list as she works so hard and is a very positive role-model.

I was also pleased to see Wellbeing of Women ambassador Karren Brady on the list along with entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox and Dame Helen Alexander (president of the CBI) who have both done very popular speaker events for us. The wonderful Shami Chakrabarti , Director of Liberty also made the list - she is speaking at one of our events on 7th May.

But the list also poses an interesting question - just how do we define power? The judges including the indomitable Jenny Murray and Wellbeing of Women vice chair Eve Pollard, apparently struggled to find women in the top jobs. There was a feeling that in some way we were sliding backwards not forwards (where are all the female newspaper editors for example?)

So after much discussion the judges had to redefine 'hard power' to include creative and inspiring women in other fields.

While a lack of equality is certainly a factor in preventing women breaking through the glass ceiling, I do not think that so many women are defined by their jobs in the same way men are. They often have many other means of feeling productive - motherhood, strong family ties, community ties, other interests and deep friendships.

Perhaps that is why women seem to cope better and live longer after retirement.

Another interesting question posed by Power List is whether politicians really hold as much influence as the millions of women in big business.

With the increasing amount of globalisation and mass advertising it is often big corporations that dictate what we buy and how we live. And, whilst there may not be that many women on boards - which should be far more diverse - that does not mean women don't hold the cards at more operational level of business practice.

I would be very interested to know what proportion of women work in mid-management where they are required to make tactical decisions.

On a much wider scale, the other news story which has really struck home over the last couple of weeks is the Francis report which highlighted the 'appalling and unnecessary suffering of hundreds of patients' at Mid Staffordshire NHS foundation trust between 2005 and 2009.

Patients were left for hours sitting in their own faeces and food and drink was left out of reach.

I cannot grasp how such whole-scale negligence could happen. I keep wondering - why didn't anyone do anything to help the patients? How could this have turned into such a huge and tragic catastrophe?

I have been talking to a friend of mine, a very experienced nurse about the tragedy. She says when she was working for the NHS in the eighties and early nineties there was really strict management and the sister of the ward prioritised patient care. There were absolute standards and staff were held to account for their actions. Equally there were also far more properly trained nurses who had studied medicine and patient care for at least two years to qualify.

Then, in the late nineties the NHS culture changed and its strategy became all about meeting targets. Suddenly the focus went from patient care to saving money and balancing the books.

Somehow a political move which was meant to improve hospital care filtered down very negatively to the operational staff desperate to meet targets.

I have my own insights too. Some years ago I was a non-executive board member of a district general hospital. The hospital has been labelled 'failing' because it couldn't balance its books but it was ridiculous to expect it to reach its targets and deliver any sort of quality of service. I sat through a three-hour board meeting where patient care was not mentioned once - something I was keen to challenge!

Thankfully, we did change our board practice and patient care became a priority.

Now, I am left wondering if we have created a whole generation of hospital managers who joined the NHS in the late nineties and were never told that the patient must always come first. I think it's terribly frightening. As someone with ageing parents I would do everything I can to keep them out of hospital.

In my view -whether you are running a hospital or more commercial business - good leaders are willing to look at the customer experience and translate that back up to top so you get a cycle of learning and decision making.

Richard Branson has based his success on the idea of giving the best customer experience possible. Sir Terry Leahy, who not so long ago successfully steered an ailing Tesco through some very choppy waters, was on the shop floor every day, seeing how things could be improved for operational staff and customers.

On a more positive note, what Wellbeing of Women tries to do is provide women with information and education about their health so they can negotiate health care with more confidence.

If someone is a buying a car or an expensive holiday they research the purchase. If you have a health condition it is your responsibility to find out as much as you can about it so you have an active say in your treatment.

And whilst Wellbeing cannot create health policies, we try and do our bit by investing in better-skilled doctors and midwives. We make sure that our trainees understand that compassion and basic humanity are essential attributes for working with patients. I am extremely proud of what we have achieved thus far.