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Few women reach healthcare leadership roles


“The status quo isn’t working,” she said. “Organizations need to be transparent in how the promotion process works and what they are evaluating.”

There is a broader push to boost female representation in healthcare management roles. More health systems are appointing chief diversity officers, who are in part tasked with ensuring gender diversity. Time’s Up Healthcare also recently launched to address similar disparities and injustices in the industry.

But shifting from how things have always been done in healthcare has proven to be difficult and slow.

“It is a hard switch, so it has to be intentional,” Bell said. “Intentional and systematic processes need to be put in place along the recruiting piece, talent promotion, development and incentives for top leaders. But that takes time.”

The transition may be quicker if the case can be made that gender diversity is profitable. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said their organizations would be more profitable with greater gender parity in leadership, while 64% believe there would be less turnover. When there is less turnover, patient and employee satisfaction typically go up, which can translate to more revenue.

Five out of eight of Providence St. Joseph Health‘s executive leaders who report directly to its CEO are women. That includes Dr. Rhonda Medows, executive vice president of population health, who spent the early part of her childhood living in low-income areas of Brooklyn. Her family received medical care from community clinics and through public-assistance programs, where she learned about the barriers to treatment.

Providers need to understand the patients and communities they serve to deliver the best care, she said.

“We will best be able to do this with leadership that is as diverse as the patients we care for,” Medows said last year. “I know how challenging it can be pursuing careers in healthcare because I’ve faced many obstacles.”

Providence St. Joseph Health has both informal and formal programs to help women advance including mentorship programs, leadership formation and a social networking group for women leaders that Debra Canales jokingly calls “chicks in charge.”

Women in leadership have a responsibility to pay it forward by identifying the next generation of women leaders and doing what we can to bring them up,” said Canales, the executive vice president and chief administrative officer at Providence St. Joseph. “We can’t wait around for the industry to catch up to the rest of the world—female leaders and our male allies need to make change happen ourselves.”

Healthcare executives must evaluate the root cause of gender disparity, and possibly reframe job descriptions or performance reviews to emphasize the purpose and meaning behind the work, which seems to resonate with women, Bell said.

Typically, more men are exposed to finance and operations development than women, which can lead to lopsided leadership representation. Organizations also need to be transparent in how the promotion process works and what skills they are looking for, Bell said.

Once efforts are in place, leaders need to be held accountable. Keep track of how many women are promoted. Managers need to do a better job of identifying someone with potential and women need to tout their own achievements and ask for a promotion, Bell said.

Fifty-four percent of those surveyed believe that women do not self-promote as strongly as men do and 62% said that women get promoted by working hard and being recognized for their efforts rather than asking their boss directly. An advocate, which is more than a mentor, can be particularly helpful in that arena, Bell said.

But at times, it is easier to make an impact from the outside in, said Trina Spear, co-founder and co-CEO of Figs, which sells scrubs direct to healthcare workers and recently partnered with Time’s Up Healthcare.

“When you are in a health system and start out in the lower ranks, it can be very hard to change the system from within it,” she said.

Ideally, diversity inclusion and other initiatives will be ingrained into a health system’s culture where they appoint more women and implement equal pay but also do business with vendors with similar mindsets, Spear added.

For now, the rapid pace of merger and acquisitions and other changes in the industry may be putting the diversity inclusion efforts on the back burner, Bell said.

“Too often leaders don’t anticipate how critical that cultural integration is,” she said.

Nearly two-thirds of the respondents said that compared to five years ago, there is more opportunity for women to advance to senior positions in their organization. But there is a lot of room to improve, starting from the top, Bell said.

“If the CEO isn’t engaged it’s not going to work,” she said.