In honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, we’re taking a closer look at the status of women in healthcare leadership. Why do women represent just 15 percent of CEOs and about 30 percent of senior leadership in healthcare, and why is it in the best interests of healthcare organizations to turn this trend around? And how can leaders deal with a problem that’s so entrenched?
Why Increasing Women in Healthcare Leadership Is Important
Though healthcare isn’t the only place where women are underrepresented among the upper ranks, it is an industry where they comprise about two-thirds of the overall workforce, which only highlights the scarcity in leadership.
According to a 2019 report from management consulting firm Oliver Wyman, women made up approximately 30 percent of the executive teams in healthcare and represented just 13 percent of healthcare CEOs. And only about 15 percent of CEOs were women as of a November 2021 research letter published in the JAMA Network Open, which also found that women made up 20 to 50 percent of senior executive teams and boards of directors.
So, why should organizations be concerned about the relative lack of women in healthcare leadership? Lack of diversity has a number of negative connotations, but can also directly affect performance and outcomes, as a number of reports have found.
For instance, the JAMA Network authors noted that excluding women from leadership roles “likely diminishes their role in policy decisions that affect population and women’s health.” They also point to a 2020 McKinsey & Company report showing that gender diversity in leadership is associated with improved performance, “suggesting the loss of cognitive capital with the underrepresentation of women on executive teams.”
And every bit of competitive advantage matters at a time when many operators are facing disruption in the form of retail giants like CVS and Walmart entering the space. Diversity in leadership can help organizations stay more competitive by promoting innovation and a greater variety of creative solutions that can boost the likelihood of positive financial outcomes, as the Oliver Wyman report notes.
But even if the benefits of diversification seem obvious, achieving it is easier said than done. Much of the resistance that women face when it comes to advancing into senior leadership roles is unconscious and thus “hidden from view,” as Paige Minemyer writes in a summary of the Oliver Wyman report from Fierce Healthcare.
That report concluded that the low rates of women in healthcare leadership roles aren’t a result of deliberate opposition from men, who generally say they support “egalitarianism.” Yet they also point out that a lack of empathy and shared experience that can discourage upward movement in a C-suite where men are so dominant and entrenched.
Indeed, these attitudes seem to pervade not just the business of healthcare but also the academic, legislative and regulatory bodies that surround and help to define it. According to the authors of a 2018 report published at the Harvard Business Journal, women make up just 10% or senior authorship within medical journals, and just 7 percent of editorial leaders. And as recently as 2009, the working group created by the U.S. Senate to debate the Affordable Care Act (ACA) included 13 men and no women, as per USC’s Executive MHA Blog.
How Can Organizations Increase Women in Healthcare Leadership?
So, how can organizations overcome a problem that’s so entrenched not just in the healthcare business sector, but the culture itself? The good news is that there are a number of specific steps that can be taken to help meet this important goal.
Define new standards. Begin by establishing larger operational goals for inclusion, and then setting achievable benchmarks that can be monitored and report on at least a quarterly basis. A good place to start is revisiting maternity and family leave policies, not just for leadership but across the board. Too often, these are left at the discretion of departmental heads, “which may cause supervisors to encourage shorter leave or lead women to take shorter leaves to be perceived as better workers,” the HBR authors note.
Work toward attitude change. Promoting women in healthcare leadership usually means working to shift traditional assumptions and attitudes — likely on an organization-wide basis. Leaders should consider appointing this task to a dedicated professional who can invest the time needed to understand an organization from the outside.
Undertake leadership training with the help of outside groups. “You really need to help the organization understand how these subtle factors play in,” Oliver Wyman’s Terry Stone said in the Fierce Healthcare report. “It’s neither good nor bad — we all do it. We’re all human.” Investing the time in actually letting folks know what they should be looking out for can help move the needle of progress forward.
Offer professional development opportunities to help clinical workers advance into leadership roles. Professional development is a critical part of maintaining an effective clinical workforce, and can also help reduce turnover at a time when retention is more essential than ever. Get a closer look at why career development matters here, and a few tips for supporting it in your organization here.
Set up mentorship programs with a focus on advancing opportunities for women. Mentorship programs are becoming more common in healthcare, and with good reason. They can be a beneficial way for employers to promote staff development and the promotion of qualified internal talent in a way that promotes the retention of skilled workers who may otherwise seek better opportunities elsewhere.
Offer a means for other leaders to invest personally in bringing about change. One method of advancing diversity in the workplace is to provides incentives to other leaders to work toward positive change. Referral bonuses and rewards can be an effective way to bring new applicants to your attention, while also helping instill diversification as an important goal to everyone in the organization.
> Don’t miss: 4 Benefits of Interim Leadership Staffing in Healthcare
Supporting Women in Healthcare Leadership
If you’re looking for guidance on promoting women in healthcare leadership from one of the nation’s leading workforce solutions, you’ve come to the right place. At CareerStaff, we’re proud to hold Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Workplace Certification™ from the Diversity for Social Impact™ as a demonstration of our commitment to offering an accepting, encouraging, and inclusive workplace to everyone, equally.
We also specialize in helping facilities quickly fill leadership vacancies to better ensure seamless transitions and uninterrupted operations with our interim healthcare staffing solutions. You can learn more about our workforce solutions here, or get the ball rolling by submitting a staffing request now.