Rise of female leaders in social care should be celebrated, says incoming chief inspector

Andrea Sutcliffe, Chief Inspector of Adult Social Care, Care Quality Commission

Over the course of my career I have worked in health and social care. In both sectors, the workforce is predominantly female. But it is only in social care where this strength in numbers has translated into prominent female leaders. 

Just take a look: Annie Hudson and Jo Cleary leading the College of Social Work; Sharon Allen, the chief executive of Skills for Care; Jo again with Debbie Sorkin at the helm of the National Skills Academy for Social Care; Lyn Romeo and Isabelle Trowler appointed as the first chief social workers for England; Sandie Keene this year and Sarah Pickup last year as the presidents of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services; and provider trade associations led by Jane Ashcroft, Sheila Scott, Nadra Ahmed and Jacqueline Bell, among others. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we have completely cracked it in social care, nor that women leaders are better than our valued male colleagues. It just strikes me as an important contrast – and I wonder what that means for female leaders now and in the future in social care.

There is a strong tradition of equal opportunities and valuing diversity in social care and I think this has enabled many gifted women to progress when they might have faced barriers in other sectors.

Of course, we need to ensure that all appointments are made on merit and that anyone taking up a leadership position is capable of doing the job. But women hold only a fraction of leadership roles throughout the working world; those with talent need to be nurtured, supported and developed so they feel confident to put themselves forward for promotion, or for more challenging roles. 

Women in leadership positions have a particular responsibility to support and encourage others to follow in their footsteps. We can do this through mentoring and by ensuring that access to learning and development opportunities in our organisations is fair and equitable for all groups. We can also do this by being excellent role models, doing a superb job, demonstrating our values and being ourselves. 

We shouldn’t fall into the trap of conforming to perceived stereotypes of leaders. We should wear what we want, be human, be open and be approachable. Each of us will need to find our own way to do that. There isn’t a one-size fits all approach to recommend, but I do have a few tips.

First, don’t think you have all the answers. One of the best things I have done in the last 10 years is have an executive coach. That time for reflective practice, with someone whose sole purpose is to help me improve, has been invaluable. 

Second, think about your work-life balance. I may not always practice what I preach here, but time for you, your family and friends needs to be cherished.

And my final tip is this: recognise that being a leader is tough. You are in the spotlight. You will have difficult decisions to make and problems to resolve. Finding a coping strategy that works for you is essential.

I focused earlier on women in the most prominent leadership positions, but there are leaders at all levels in social care and lots of them are women. Let’s celebrate that and the contribution they make. Let’s also ensure we give them the support and encouragement they need to keep the pipeline of talent flowing strong.

Until Friday Andrea Sutcliffe is chief executive at the Social Care Institute for Excellence. From 9 October, she will take up post as chief inspector of adult social care for the CQC.

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