Throughout March, we are celebrating International Women’s Day by sharing the stories of inspiring women that we have worked with over the last few years.

Sarah Campbell, was appointed Chief Executive of the British Society for Rheumatology, the leading membership society for rheumatology professionals in the UK, in May 2023, having previously held the role of Director of Practice and Quality.

With over 20 years in the health and membership sectors, with roles covering policy, research and programme management, Sarah has always had a focus on improving care for patients, building an understanding of the healthcare system and what works to improve it.

How do you inspire inclusion in your work and life?

One of the best things about working at BSR is that I get to live my values. Inclusivity is one of our organisational values and I’m proud to have been part of the senior team overseeing real progress in making our organisational culture inclusive and safe. For example, we’ve recently moved to a 4.5 day week and made where people work entirely flexible around team and individual needs.

We have an equity, diversity and inclusion strategy in place and its implementation is led by a fantastic group of staff, supported by the senior team and one of our trustees.

We actively look at our data in relation to inclusion and create spaces for staff to debate and design what we could do differently. We want everyone at BSR to be able to thrive, whatever their circumstances.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing women in leadership positions today, particularly in the healthcare sector?

BSR works incredibly closely with its membership, and as rheumatology is a predominantly female specialty we have the privilege of working with many female NHS leaders.

However, there are still barriers to women advancing their leadership career in the NHS. For example, 49% of women in medicine work less than full time (compared to 10% of their male colleagues) which research shows slows their career trajectory and can mean they don’t reach a leadership position.

Only 37% of clinical board members are female and this drops to 12% for non-clinical leaders in the NHS.

At the same time, the NHS gender pay gap is somewhere between 17.4% and 23%.

Have you faced any obstacles or resistance as a woman in a leadership position, and if so, how did you overcome them?

My main obstacle was one that I constructed for myself: balancing work and parenting without factoring in any time to look after myself.

After I had my second child, I applied for a promotion at work that would also mean relocating back to the North West, which has always been a family aspiration. I was successful and it set us up brilliantly for the next phase of family life. However, I’d underestimated the toll of a longer commute, more senior position, and having a toddler and a young baby at home. I gradually became exhausted and stressed and was not thinking effectively at work.

The pandemic and working from home revealed how much my well-being had suffered. I’ve taken significant steps to not fall into that pattern again (mostly working from home, getting up for exercise, eating better and recognising early when my energy is low or stress-levels up) and radically improved my health. I’m better at home and work as a result.

What is the most noticeable win for gender equality you’ve witnessed throughout your career?

Whilst also recognising that many employers and sectors have a very long way to go, I think the attention given to gender pay disparity has been extraordinary.

Shining a light on this issue and demanding data and action from large employers gives women a lever for change.

With around 40 employees, it’s not compulsory for BSR to study gender or ethnicity pay disparity, but we do it because they are important metrics. I’m very proud that by using the data to activate change, we’ve almost eliminated the gender pay gap (currently -1.3% in favour of women).

What advice would you give to other women aspiring to leadership roles in the third sector?

I’d recommend taking on a trustee role. Find something you’re passionate about and see whether there are related charities where you could serve on the board.

That insight into board-level activity and decision-making is invaluable; it sharpens your strategic thinking and encourages you to ask great questions.

How do you use decision-making power to foster a culture of inclusivity?

Having worked in improvement for a long time, I know that you only make the right decisions once you understand the needs of all stakeholders. I like to understand the impact of my decision-making and that means listening to a range of different voices. My working assumption is that we’ll get a better outcome if the right mix of people are at the table in the first place.

Do you advocate for gender equality and inclusivity outside of your professional role?

I’ve recently been appointed as a Greater Manchester magistrate, having been encouraged by two sitting magistrates who commented that working mothers in their 40s were an under-represented group in the judiciary.

Diversity in the judiciary is vital to ensure everyone gets a fair hearing that’s not influenced by prejudice or bias. It’s early days but I can appreciate how the current set-up is difficult for working parents to navigate.

I’ll be making a small difference from the bench and hopefully, in time, advocating for some changes.

Did you have any role models or mentors who have helped you on your professional journey?

Clare Ruby, who was Head of Events during my stint at the NHS Confederation, taught me about having uncompromisingly high standards in the work I delivered. Clare celebrated professional women and took genuine pleasure as anyone climbed the ladder.

Nigel Edwards, who I worked for as a senior policy officer at the NHS Confederation was extraordinarily generous in the opportunities he offered and taught me the value of having the right people around you and giving them the space to flourish.

Matt Robinson, who recently demitted as CEO of the Union at Manchester Metropolitan gave me huge encouragement and advice before I applied for the CEO role at BSR. I probably wouldn’t have applied without his enthusiasm!

Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share?

As it’s International Women’s Day, let’s give the final word to Gloria Steinem:

“A feminist is anyone who recognises the equality and full humanity of women and men.”



James Hunt is our Head of Not for Profit Appointments, a senior executive search recruitment specialist supporting the not for profit sector since 2005. With a love for finding passionate and talented people, matchmaking leaders, experts and teams in executive appointments. You can connect with James on LinkedIn, or email him at to start an informal chat about your career or recruitment needs.