Over the past few decades, the health care industry has made "big strides" in nurturing female leaders, but "we still have a long way to go," Annette Walker, CEO of St. Joseph Health and president of strategy at Providence St. Joseph Health, writes for STAT News.
Walker notes that women account for just 26 percent of hospital CEOs and just 21 percent of executives at Fortune 500 health care companies, despite making up 78 percent of the U.S. health care workforce.
Multiple studies have "demonstrated that organizations with gender-balanced leadership are more successful" than those without such leadership, Walker writes. And "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," she adds.
Why the lack of diversity?
So why is the world of the health care C-suite so homogenous? Walker writes that the problem has many causes. One is that, when she started in the field more than 20 years ago, women "wanting to break into the field were encouraged to pursue nursing, or perhaps social work," as opposed to senior leadership roles.
Gender stereotypes also play a role, according to Walker, "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." Walker also writes that sometimes "women themselves temper their own aspirations, believing their upward mobility may be limited."
How to fix the problem
"Solving that stubborn challenge in our industry ... will require a sustained and concerted effort from players across our industry," Walker writes, adding, "At Providence St. Joseph Health, where I work, we've committed to developing the leadership potential of our female colleagues."
Walker shares some strategies that her health system has had success with and could help other health care organizations diversify their leadership, including:
- Flexible work arrangements;
- Leadership training opportunities for women;
- Greater visibility for female role models;
- Fostering connections between junior- and senior-level female employees;
- Defined and transparent career pathing to leadership positions;
- Addressing the difficulties of balancing family life and the demands of work;
- Supporting community programs that promote opportunities for women; and
- Encouraging women to enroll in STEM and other academic programs.
Walker also writes that her health system is "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," she writes, concluding, "As an industry, we can institutionalize these tactics and adopt policies that foster the growth of our women leaders" (Walker, STAT News, 7/10).
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