Women account for 73% of medical and health services managers, but only account for 18% of US hospital CEOs—a percentage so low that experts believe only a conscious effort to promote, mentor and see value in female employees will nudge the needle.
An online report published by Rock Health, a firm that funds healthcare startups, recently made headlines for publicizing these and other statistics—including the fact that women also account for 47% of medical school graduates. The report, which culled data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Thomson Reuters and its own internal research, suggests that a number of challenges have stymied women from landing CEO roles.
What's holding women back?
The biggest obstacles, according to the firm's survey of 100 women with careers in healthcare? Self confidence, time constraints and the ability to connect with senior leadership. 43% of women in healthcare said they had no mentor, and having one can be essential in climbing the ladder in any career.
The low percentage of women in C-level healthcare leadership positions doesn't surprise Victoria Pynchon, co-founder of She Negotiates, a Los Angeles-based career consulting firm that specializes in helping women fight for better salaries and job opportunities.
"[Women are] in the teens in leadership positions in the law, finance, business and all other male-dominated industries," says Pynchon. "The reasons for women being in the teens includes being pushed out, not opting out. The forces pushing women out of the money and out of power in male-dominated industries include the paucity of women at the top, signaling to many women that their chances are far less than average for the amount of work required by both men and women to reach the corner office."
Also at play are unconscious biases by leaders that keep women from developing their own books of business. These biases often show up in negative subjective reviews (too aggressive, not aggressive enough), she adds.
"There's also the lingering idea that one, women are not suited for leadership because they have children and must, of course, be more preoccupied with them than a man with children would be, or two, might not 'fit in' or 'get along with' inside or outside 'stakeholders' who are still too often men who are still too often assumed to 'get along better with men than they will with women,'" says Pynchon. A third factor is that women too often lack sponsorship—leaders willing to put their political skin in the game of someone else's career trajectory—something that is still more readily available to men.
A deeply-rooted problem in healthcare
Mary Lee, the former vice president of revenue cycle for Maricopa Integrated Health System in Arizona who is now the vice president for consulting services for Adreima, a healthcare revenue cycle management company, says the lack of women in healthcare CEO roles is so deeply rooted that change is slow.
"Historically doctors wrote the orders and women carried them out," says Phoenix-based Lee, whose own experience has reflected this reality.
When Lee got her start as the sole employee of a pediatric physician in 1968, he regularly referred to her as his "girl Friday." Throughout her career, the only way Lee got promotions was by leaving existing jobs to get new jobs—something she believes was, at least in part, due to her gender.
"There's a class system within a large health system and you are in your place," says Lee. "If you're female there's a track for you and if you're a male there's a track for you."
The last time Lee switched jobs to get a promotion was in 2002, where she left a director role to become a VP of operations. Since then, she's held multiple VP roles.
And just as things have changed for the better in her life as a healthcare industry executive, Lee believes things will also start to change for women, one year at a time.
"We now have more female students in medical schools, and we are going to see more of those women taking executive roles within healthcare organizations," says Lee. "I think in ten years we’re going to see that evolution."