New research at the University of Liverpool found that men occupy the most authoritative and influential positions in the NHS, with women believing they must assume a more aggressive male 'career personality' to achieve success. Those taking part in the study said 'old boy networks' are still evident in terms of selection processes for senior positions.
The research, conducted by Dr Jan Bogg and her team from the University's Department of Clinical Psychology, focused on equality and diversity issues within the NHS Allied Health Professions including those related to gender, ethnic minority backgrounds, disability and sexual orientation.
Dr Bogg said: "Women's traditional role as caregiver on the domestic front often leads to part-time working patterns and this is one reason for their lack of progression. There is a strong perception that NHS managers do not view part-time workers for career advancement in the same way as full-time staff.
"Those taking part in the study believed there was a further in-built bias in the system meaning women and those from ethnic minorities have to work harder to achieve success. Almost twice as many men as women hold senior positions in the NHS yet 80% of NHS staff are women."
The NHS is the largest employer in Western Europe, employing 1.2M people. It is also the largest employer of ethnic minority staff in the UK.
Of the 1,600 health professionals who took part in the study, 75% agreed that the NHS was working hard to promote equality and diversity but 64% believed that those from ethnic minorities were not well represented at senior levels in their organisation. The use of positive discrimination to redress this imbalance was perceived as an unfair recruitment strategy by the majority of participants who were mainly of White British origin.
Disability and sexual orientation was also perceived as a barrier to career progression - 87% of disabled respondents felt their disability limited their chances of promotion.
Dr Bogg added: "It is clear the NHS is striving to improve working lives and to enhance the recruitment and retention of health professionals. Change is happening in the NHS but the perceptions of those who work there indicate that more needs to be done to address institutionalised practices and challenge stereotypical beliefs."
The research, funded by the European Social Fund, will be presented at a University of Liverpool conference entitled 'Breaking Barriers In The Workplace' on Thursday, 30 June. Keynote speakers will include Surinder Sharma, Director of Equality and Human Rights in the NHS.