As health care reform continues to dominate the national debate, one concern from patient advocates arose recently when it was revealed that a Senate health care “working group” didn’t include any women. Sadly, it’s not unusual for a group of health care leaders to be dominated by men. With significant policy changes headed our way, there is no better time to leverage the unique capabilities of our female colleagues to help guide the health care industry in this new era.
Solving that stubborn challenge in our industry — one that long predates the current policy debate — will require a sustained and concerted effort from players across our industry. Despite some progress in recent years, women hold only 26 percent of hospital CEO positions and 21 percent of executive positions at Fortune 500 health care companies even though they make up 78 percent of the health care work force.
This issue is deeply personal for me. When I started my career in health care more than 20 years ago, senior leadership wasn’t on my mind. Women wanting to break into the field were encouraged to pursue nursing, or perhaps social work. I was lucky to be part of organizations that nurtured women leaders — and now lead a system that has made this a major priority.
When I talk with my grandchildren and their friends, I am proud to tell them that health care has made big strides since I began my career, that they really can follow their dreams — whether that takes them to a doctor’s office or a C-suite. But the reality is more complicated and we still have a long way to go. It’s a challenge that requires a commitment from all of us in every part of the health care system.
Study after study has demonstrated that organizations with gender-balanced leadership are more successful than their homogenous counterparts. At a time of significant change for the American health care system, it is particularly important to have a range of perspectives and experiences at the helm. Without a doubt, a leadership team that is representative of the patient populations it serves is better suited to determine the most effective ways to deliver care in its community.
Many people forget — or never knew in the first place — that women have led the way in bringing care to our communities. Many of the first hospitals were founded by Catholic nuns more than 150 years ago. They did everything from administration and operations to clinical work and public health outreach. These women were the first leaders in health care and laid the foundation for the American health care system. Their accomplishments forged a natural path and place for women in the workplace.
So why is progress in the field still limited for women? Like many societal challenges, the root of this problem is multifaceted and nearly impossible to pin on one factor. Gender stereotypes still play a role, along with balancing family responsibilities and work schedules, parental leave policies, and access to professional networks, contacts and sponsoring structures that are vital channels for promotions. And sometimes women themselves temper their own aspirations, believing their upward mobility may be limited.
I recognize that some of these factors are beyond individuals’ control. Nevertheless, I believe that we owe it to our patients, our employees, and the communities we serve to do everything we can to increase the number of women in leadership roles.
At Providence St. Joseph Health, where I work, we’ve committed to developing the leadership potential of our female colleagues. This is an important part of how we live our commitment to all our caregivers and uphold our values of quality, service, excellence, and justice. Several members of our executive team and seven of our 15 board members are women. And we’re currently doing many things — and looking at new steps we can take — to support women leaders in our organization. We encourage other health care organizations to join us.
Some of the steps we’ve taken include:
- Flexible work arrangements
- Training opportunities for women to build leadership skills
- Increased visibility of female role models
- Connecting junior employees with female senior-level mentors
- Transparent advancement opportunities and clearly charted pathways to leadership
- Shining a light on the challenges of balancing family and work needs
- Support for community programs that promote opportunities for women in our service areas
- Emphasizing STEM and academic programs for women, something we’re doing at our new School of Health Professions in Great Falls, Mont.
Furthermore, we’re exploring how a dedicated team or task force can examine these issues regularly, so our system can continuously increase opportunities for women leaders.
More than anything, we must continue to acknowledge this issue, even as other health care challenges demand our attention. As an industry, we can institutionalize these tactics and adopt policies that foster the growth of our women leaders.
Annette Walker is president of strategy at Providence St. Joseph Health and chief executive officer for St. Joseph Health. In 2017, she was named one of the 25 top women in health care by Modern Healthcare magazine.