Skip to main content

Female CEOs say ambulance service culture ‘deeply wrong’

Published on: 10 Nov 2022

The only two female ambulance chief executives in the country have said there is something ‘deeply wrong’ with the culture in ambulance services.

Helen Ray, the chief executive of the North East Ambulance Service Foundation Trust, said women working in the ambulance service “accept [inappropriate] banter, they accept sexualised behaviour from their male colleagues, and from patients, and they think it is okay”.

She stressed “it is absolutely not [okay]” and said women must be given “safe spaces for talking and speaking up about that”.

“There is something deeply wrong with the culture in the ambulance service”, she told the NHS Confederation’s Health and Care Women Leaders Network event on Tuesday.

Ambulance services have performed consistently worse than other trust types in the NHS staff survey, with the most recent 2021 survey reporting almost 44 per cent of ambulance service staff reporting gender-based discrimination, compared to around 26 per cent in the wider NHS.

HSJ also reported in detail last year of the “macho” culture within ambulance services, which was leading to the widespread abuse of female staff.

Instances of harassment and abuse included female paramedics being told they had to give sexual favours to help them progress in their careers, and staff being sexually assaulted by more senior male staff members.

Siobhan Melia, interim chief executive of South East Coast Ambulance Service, said when she joined the trust four months ago on secondment from Sussex Community FT, it felt like she had “landed on a different planet”.

Ms Melia said it was a culture “not like any other part of the NHS”.

“The gender pay gap in my organisation is significant, so we see men in senior roles are taking it upon themselves to abuse their power, [with] both female students and female lower graded staff.”

“Our improvement journey calls this out specifically – we have to take action and report it to the police, our HR processes need to get faster and more decisive and we must instil the confidence in our staff that we will stamp this out.

“The collective response of all of us saying no, this is no longer acceptable is how change happens,” she stressed. 

In response to a question about how women in the ambulance sector are supporting each other, Ms Melia added that there was a danger female leaders in the sector had been “institutionalised”, as they are so used to how things are that they no longer see some of the behaviours as unacceptable.

She added she was not sure the sector was “evolved enough” for female leaders to support each other because, for example, there are only two female ambulance chief executives — herself and Ms Ray — and, with Ms Ray’s trust at the other end of England, circumstances meant they had not so far been supporting each other over these issues.