Breaking the glass ceiling: Women in healthcare leadership

When longtime Sutter Health CEO Patrick Fry announced his retirement in 2015, the health system promoted its chief operating officer, Sarah Krevans, to be his replacement. The previous year, Bon Secours Richmond Health System handed over its reins to Toni Ardabell. In doing so, Krevans and Ardabell became two of just 18% of U.S. hospital CEOs who are female.

According to report by PwC’s Strategy&, the share of incoming women CEOs in the world’s 2,500 largest public companies dropped to 2.8% in 2015, the lowest level since 2011. Among healthcare companies, the rate was even lower—1.6%.

A 2014 study by Rock Health, which cited the 18% of women CEOs figure, also found a number of barriers in advancement. Key among them were lack of self-confidence and not having a mentor in the C-suite, which can make climbing the ladder easier in any career.

So why are so few women in leadership positions in hospitals, and what can be done to change that?

“It’s the age-old conversation around pipeline,” says Donna Padilla, senior partner and vice chair of the healthcare practice at Witt/Kieffer. “You have to build them to be able to grow them, to recruit them in.”

Different goals

Padilla oversaw a recent survey of 192 male and female healthcare leaders with varying lengths of experience — what she calls a “gender conversation” at the C-suite level. The results showed some interesting differences in men’s and women’s goals and career strategies.

For example, more men saw CEO as their goal, while women tended to see executive as the goal. “It wasn’t a CEO or bust kind of situation,” says Padilla. “They were looking for impact.” However, the more female leadership there was in the C-suite, the more women thought CEO should be the goal, she adds. That shows that an organization’s environment and gender mix are important in attracting women to the CEO slot.

The survey also found that while men are more likely than women to apply for CEO, once they apply, women are more confident they can get the job. “What that says to me is that women tend to test themselves more highly to the competency, and if they feel that they can pass that test, they’ll throw their hat in,” Padilla tells Healthcare Dive. On the flip side, women hold themselves back more than men when they compare themselves to a job description or profile.

Importance of relationships

Another Witt/Kieffer survey finding shows women put more value on bosses, their peers, and organizational resources when it came to plotting an upward career path.

“I think there are specific strategies and influences that women bring to the C-suite,” Padilla says. “Women seem to be more thoughtful and strategic about their career development. They place higher value on relationships with bosses and peers, and make use of mentoring, performance reviews, succession planning and other organizations resources for their advancement."

This approach of seeking support and building relationships is a value women bring to an organization, and it can spread across the organization and have a positive impact on workplace culture, Padilla adds.

Finally, women ranked family and spouse — especially as it relates to relocation — higher than their male counterparts, but only by a couple of percentage points.

Encouraging diversity

To grow the number of women hospital CEOs, organizations need to look more broadly at the critical competencies they’re looking for in a leader and allow themselves to identify more transferrable skill sets, Padilla says. “It may not be A to A, B to B or C to C, but they may bring five other gifts that just as much answer to those needs.” That means educating organizations and search committees about what are do-or-die competencies a candidate needs and what can be trained or learned once they get in.

Encouraging diversity in senior leadership is also key, as women tend to model themselves more on around the potential accessibility of a role, she says. For example, some organizations have created executive leadership programs, delving within to identify people with high leadership potential.

Padilla, who has been working in healthcare recruitment for 17 years, is seeing more organizations start to cast a broader net for candidates. “I’ve had a number of CEO searches where they’ve said we would really like to see someone who has a nursing background, who’s been at the bedside. So there’s fertile fishing in those pools,” she says.

“The more common and visible that women are in leadership positions, the more other women will envision themselves in these roles and pursue them,” Padilla says. “It feeds on itself. I think the sky is the limit for roles that women can fill within the C-suite.” 

Filed Under: Hospital Administration