February 6, 2020

While women comprise over half of today's medical students, men continue to dominate physician leadership. According to the American Medical Association, women account for just 3% of health care CMOs, 6% of department chairs, and 9% of division chiefs. Here's why there's such a gender gap in physician leadership—and one strategy organizations should take to identify and promote women leaders.

Feb. 11 webinar: How to address the leadership gender gap in health care

Gender imbalance in physician leadership

Women physicians have made significant gains in the medical field: Over the past 10 years alone, the number of women physicians has grown by 40%, and women now make up the majority of medical school enrollees. And, research shows women physicians have better patient outcomes and boost organizational performance.

40% of women go part-time or leave medicine within six years of completing residency.

Despite these gains, a number of obstacles continue to block women physicians from rising into leadership positions. Forty percent of women go part-time or leave medicine within six years of completing residency due to barriers such as gender harassment, salary inequity, gender bias, or work-family conflict. While many assume that women are simply choosing to focus on family out of personal preference, the reality is that in many cases their current work environment does not support managing both family and career at the same time. Studies show that women often receive little support in continuing to work after giving birth, face far higher time demands than men at home, and sometimes experience discrimination because of pregnancy or breastfeeding.

The women who do stay in practice are often overlooked when leadership opportunities arise. Part of the problem is that few health care leaders have a transparent, standardized process in place to identify high-potential talent. The result: leader biases can easily play out when selecting a successor, often leaving women out. Shockingly, more than half of executives said women at their organization have been overlooked due to their gender.

How to build a path for women physician leaders

One way to reduce promotion bias and open the door to more women candidates is through succession management. A succession plan creates a structured process for identifying and preparing a successor for leadership roles based on fair, standardized criteria. We recommend a two-part screening process to identify high-potential talent:

  1. Identify high-potential physicians: Conduct a holistic assessment of a physician's leadership potential using our Leadership Potential Diagnostic. The goal is to identify the top 25% of high-potential leaders using a standardized set of behaviors. A physician with strong leadership potential demonstrates three key attributes: talent, ambition, and engagement to succeed in more senior positions.

    As you narrow your pool of physicians, ask yourself: does this list reflect the gender breakdown of our physician workforce? If not, revisit your initial pool of physicians.  

  2. Vet top selections: Gather input from key leaders using our high-potential calibration discussion guide. This discussion should narrow the list of physician succession candidates to the top 5% to 10%.

    As you evaluate potential, be mindful of areas where you may be making gendered assumptions. Ask yourself: if this physician were a man, would I feel the same way? It might be helpful to have the group surface common gender stereotypes at the start of the discussion. You may also consider bringing in an outside facilitator to lead this discussion.

Want to learn more strategies to address the physician leadership gender gap? 

Admittedly, succession management is only effective if you're able to retain women physicians early in their careers. Join us on February 11th at 1 pm EST to learn more strategies to retain and develop the next generation of women physician leaders.

Register for the Webinar

Topics