Molden: My 'epiphany' about bias in health care—and how to overcome it

Modern Healthcare this week released its biannual list of the Top 25 Women in Healthcare, which recognizes female executives who are developing policy, leading change, and transforming healthcare delivery across the country.

One of the key criteria for the award is serving as a role model or mentor for other female executives in health care. And no one understands the importance of mentorship better than Michele Molden, who was named to the magazine's 2009 list while she was serving as the president and CEO of the Piedmont Heart Institute in Atlanta.

Now, Michele is a Partner and SVP of Advisory Board Consulting and Management. The Daily Briefing's Clare Rizer and Juliette Mullin caught up with her earlier this month to discuss what she's learned in her time as a "top" female leader and how organizations can facilitate the development of female leaders.

Question: As you reflect on your own experience in health care, what do you think are some of the unique challenges women face in trying to climb the ladder in this industry?

Michele Molden: I believe that our world is inherently biased and if we don't acknowledge it, we can never solve it.

You know, I have thought and talked about women in leadership for years. One day, a friend encouraged me to revisit the performance evaluations of both men and women whom I had managed to see if I had used different language to describe both sexes' strengths and weaknesses. To my surprise, I had. I called men risk takers and performers; I referred to women as communicators and team builders. It was an epiphany for me.

Eighteen percent of the CEOs in health care are female, while 80% of our workforce is female. So, something happens between people who take care of patients and CEOs to take women out of the equation.

Part of that is that women view their work differently and tend to be promoted on performance rather than potential. Often, they are not sponsored, mentored, and coached as they climb the ladder, and there are fewer high-potential opportunities available to them. They get facilitative-type projects, while men are assigned risk-based projects.

Q: Recognizing that women face this unintentional bias, what are the steps both men and women can take to level the playing field?

Molden: Sponsorship and following the "Rule of Three" are the two most easily attainable solutions.

We as women need to understand what the biases inherent in our current establishment are and find sponsors, mentors, and coaches to cultivate female leaders' potential. We must decide who is going to be the sponsor to bring that woman into the boardroom and her ideas to the table.

Boards should also identify and implement the "Rule of Three"—and women must push the organization to take responsibility. One woman in the room is a token, two is a support group. But add a third and it automatically changes the conversation and makes it more diverse.

Women should also take advantage of "power positioning" and seat themselves directly at the table, rather than on the outskirts, during meeting. They should also not be afraid of a firm handshake and should use body positioning to exude confidence.

Q: Based on the inherent biases you listed earlier and the steps you've suggested here, it seems like women's role in the workplace can be defined—and sometimes limited—by the organization she is a part of.

Molden: Definitely. And one of the other challenges I find is that women are forced to straddle the line between "too soft" and "too hard." It is a very narrow space and it can be hard for women to find a happy medium.

For instance, a lot of women are successful in one organization, but then jump to another organization and feel like a fish out of water. If they aren't culturally competent going into that new space—meaning they don't acclimate well to what is expected of women there—they might decide they don't want to play "the game." Often, if you're in a hierarchical organization and you want a spot in the C-Suite, you have to play that game and women who decide against playing it take themselves out of contention for higher leadership roles.

It can be a real Catch-22.

Eight hospitals named as top employers of executive women

Q: Are you seeing hospitals and health systems institutionally doing a better job bringing women into executive opportunities?

Molden: I think it's hard, but they're catching on. Many organizations are developing really evolved female affinity groups in order to meet their clients' expectations around diversity. Creating affinity groups for that purpose can help businesses meet those expectations while transforming female leaders in the process.

Organizations can create a variety of initiatives to reach out to women in clinical environments and to bring them business skills. Speaking and writing skills are not typically taught in a clinical environment, but the development of a formal mentoring program that focuses on honing those valued skills can automatically make women more valuable to organizations.

Michele works with Advisory Board clients to help health systems and physician enterprises achieve financial and operational sustainability. Stay tuned for her upcoming interview with Daily Briefing about bridging the gap between doctors and administrators.

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