As tomorrow is International Women’s Day I’d like to give a shout out to all the wonderful wāhine who work in healthcare in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Whether it is the kaiāwhina supporting the elderly and other people in the community, or the nurses and allied health workers in our hospitals, women keep healthcare humming along.

In fact, women healthcare workers comprise more than 70% of the global health workforce and 90% of health workers in patient-facing roles.

Even in medicine, nearly half of all doctors in the active workforce in NZ are female and are soon expected to outnumber men.  And one of the last bastions – surgery – is also changing, with 30% of trainees in this country being women.

As someone who started their career in financial services, I was often the only woman in the room. Moving into healthcare was refreshingly different, with many fantastic female role models at managerial, clinical leadership, and governance levels. (You know who you are!)

Now that I am CEO of a health & wellbeing insurer, I work in a sector that straddles both healthcare and financial services. Great work is underway at the Financial Services Council to support women and I am fortunate to lead an organisation where we have gender equity at both the executive and governance tables.

However, the proportion of women in senior roles in health continues to lag behind workforce participation levels. I could not find recent stats for NZ, but according to Monash University, 75% of the Australian health workforce is female, 45% of public health sector board Chairs are women, and just under 40% of private and public healthcare organisations are led by women. I anticipate our figures for NZ are similar.

Three years ago on International Women’s Day, the Health Quality & Safety Commission highlighted the lack of wāhine Māori and Pacific women in decision-making positions and the impact of this on quality and safety. Diversity in decision-making helps ensure a breadth of perspectives are considered which in turn can help address issues of inequity.

I have certainly worked with some exceptional Māori and Pacific women in the health sector, and high-profile leaders such as Margie Apa have carved out a path for others – but we still have a way to go.

The impact of gender diversity on organisational performance is regularly debated. In 2019, the Harvard Business Review referenced a study of 1,069 leading firms across 35 countries and 24 industries. It found that gender diversity relates to more productive companies, as measured by market value and revenue, only in contexts where gender diversity is viewed as “normatively” accepted. Normative acceptance means a widespread cultural belief that gender diversity is important.

In other words, beliefs about gender diversity create a self-fulfilling cycle. Countries and industries that view gender diversity as important capture benefits from it. Those that don’t, don’t.

So at a time where the whole health sector is facing demand pressures and our health workforce is stretched, it’s important that we take a pause and acknowledge the commitment and expertise that women working in health bring to their roles every day. And think about the leadership power that could be unleashed to help improve the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders if we have more diverse voices around the table.

Lastly while celebrating women in health, I also acknowledge the many men and gender diverse people who make a valuable contribution to the sector. It takes all of us, working together across both public and private healthcare, to meet the needs of our communities.

Ngā mihi,

Louise Zacest

Chief Executive