Women's Executive Leadership Still Lags, And It Matters More in Healthcare Than Other Industries

While 60 percent of top U.S. companies now include at least two women on their executive committees, men (83 percent of executive committee members) still greatly outnumber women (17 percent). More telling, women on executive committees largely represent "support" functions, such as HR, communications or legal, according to a new study by gender consultancy 20-First published in Harvard Business Review.

The study found that of the women who make up U.S. executive committees, 65 percent work in support functions, while 35 percent work in operational roles. This is concerning because operational roles have the most impact on organizational performance and are most likely to qualify one to become a CEO.

Just 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 company CEOs are women.

Healthcare fares a bit better, but not by much.

Women make up 70 percent of healthcare service managers and 47 percent of medical school graduates, but representation decreases as we move higher up the organizational ladder.

Just 19 percent of hospital CEOs are women, and only 4 percent of healthcare companies are run by women, according to the 2013 RockHealth "Women in Healthcare" report.

While 19 percent is certainly higher than the 4.6 percent of women running Fortune 500 companies, the percentage seems quite low when we consider women make up the majority of the healthcare workforce, and are at the center of most healthcare decision making — not only do they direct their healthcare, but they also guide the care received by their children, spouses, parents and in laws. Seventy-eight percent of the healthcare workforce is women, and yet they make up less than one-fifth of top leaders. Women should be leading these organizations in greater numbers than they are today.

What gives?

There are plenty of books on why women lag behind men in the workplace. Societal constraints, the challenges of raising a family while working, failure to "Lean In."

A new book, "Womenomics: Work Less, Achieve More, Live Better" suggests it may actually be a lack of confidence that holds women back. Studies have shown most women won't apply for a job unless they have every qualification; men, on average, need just 50 percent of the qualifications to apply. Women are less likely to speak up in meetings, ensuring that every remark is well thought-out and considered. Men say what they're thinking and don't worry too much about it. This, of course, is a generalization, but I've certainly seen it play out in my career, as well of those of my friends.

Recently, I had dinner with a friend who does enterprise sales. She's in the third round of interviews for a job that would be a major career booster for her; she'd oversee sales for a much larger region and be responsible for managing many more people. Yet she worried: "I've never done this before." Isn't that the point of taking on a new role? The first-time hospital CEO obviously hasn't been a CEO before, whether it's a man or women. Yet women, on the whole, are much more likely to worry about their ability to perform. Men, it seems, just go for it.

In healthcare, and other industries, studies have shown women make strong leaders — if they are able to move to the top of the organization. They are more participative and democratic leaders, better at motivating employees beyond core duties and developing the skills of others. They're more likely to use positive reward incentives vs. threats. They're better at fostering good relationships and better at mentoring.

Studies of Fortune 500 and 1000 companies have found those with women leaders financially outperformed those led by men.

This isn't to say men aren't also strong leaders; In fact, research shows the best leaders use a situational management style, using authoritarian edicts when needed, but also being democratic when the situation is best served by that approach.

Regardless, gender disparities exist in leadership. Studies have shown women make high-performing leaders, so I have to wonder the impact a greater number of them could make in an industry they already largely make up and control the spending within.

In the words of world-renowned gender scholar Alice Eagly:

"From my perspective, such leaders would improve our world, but there are many unknowns. To find out whether our societies would thrive and prosper if women shared power equally with men, more women would have to hold the reins of power. My best guess is that the gains of moving expeditiously in this direction far outweigh the risks."

To hear more on this issue, attend the Becker's Hospital Review Annual Meeting (May 15-17 in Chicago). I'll be participating on the panel "Perspectives From Top Women Healthcare Leaders," along with Barbara Martin, President and CEO, Vista Health; Ruth Brinkley, President and CEO, KentuckyOne; and Dr. Barbara R. Paul, SVP and CMO, Community Health Systems, to discuss this and other issues. The panel takes place on Friday, May 16th at 2:15 pm CST.

 

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