Like many industries, healthcare is not immune to gender imbalance. Although women make up more than 65% of the healthcare workforce, they’re often underrepresented in executive leadership roles. When combined with a similar imbalance in executive leadership roles for those with diverse backgrounds, the gap is even more pronounced.
Given the change and disruption in healthcare from rising consumerism, regulatory reform and the shift to value-based care, now is the time to seek a more representative mix in healthcare leadership especially in the C-suite and on the board of directors.
Not only is closing the gender gap the right thing to do, a study by McKinsey & Co. found that hiring female leadership could reap financial and performance benefits such as helping organizations discover diversified talent, connect more consumers to care, and increase associate satisfaction.
Women are equally qualified to fill healthcare senior leadership roles, but studies find they often have to work twice as hard to be heard, respected and move up the corporate ladder. Being cognizant of this, healthcare leaders must be quick to listen and slow to speak to ensure the perspectives of everyone at the leadership table is heard. We also must make every effort to foster female-to-female mentorship opportunities to help emerging female leaders grow and flourish, knowing that top talent begets top talent. Ascension’s program to identify and nurture emerging leaders, Ascension Leadership Academy, weaves sponsorship into the curriculum to ensure women and men feel empowered and confident to take the next step.
At Ascension, we are working to increase the number of women who take on top positions within our leadership. We recently announced a new leadership team, which includes Liz Foshage, who will become Ascension’s chief financial officer; Christine McCoy, our general counsel; and Karen Springer, who will serve in the newly created role of executive vice president for performance optimization and nursing operations.
We also have a number of women in top leadership positions at our local health systems. In addition, our Ascension Sponsor and board of directors are composed of 75% and 55% women, respectively. But we know we can do more to ensure opportunities at the leadership level for both women and diverse candidates.
Following in other industries’ footsteps, healthcare has become increasingly consumer-centric as well. Because women are often the key consumer decisionmakers for households, it makes good business sense that our leadership should reflect those we serve—they are in the best position to understand and ensure we meet our consumers’ needs. Elevating female leaders is one way to ensure healthcare’s leadership reflects the diverse populations we treat.
Also, as talent shortages abound, recruiting and retaining top leaders is on the minds of all healthcare executives, and staff satisfaction is an integral component. We know that having diversity in the workforce—especially in top leadership—encourages others to join our team.
We also have heard from our associates that they want flexibility and a healthy work/life balance that lets them contribute in a valuable way to the organization and feel whole in body, mind and spirit. It’s imperative in this competitive environment that organizations develop a family-friendly culture with benefits and programs that encourage balance.
Although there’s no magic wand to help close the gender gap, there are important ways health systems can ensure more women are at the leadership table. Most importantly, health systems need to ensure mentorship opportunities are in place, encourage diversity in leadership, and maintain a culture of healthy work/life balance.
I encourage all healthcare leaders to look at their C-suites and governing boards and see how we can make progressive changes toward greater equality.