Leading & succeeding: A roundtable of women leaders in health IT

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The gender gap in healthcare isn't a new phenomenon, but recent discussions have drawn attention to wage and opportunity inequality.

HIMSS recently released its "Gender-Based IT Pay Inequality & the Impact of the Clinical IT Executive in the Health Sector" report, which found men in health IT earn an average salary of $126,000, while women in health IT earn an average salary of $101,000. Additionally, there is a significant gap in the percentage of men and women holding senior and executive roles in health IT. The survey found 3.6 percent of female respondents hold executive management roles, compared to 11.8 percent of male respondents.

Here, women leaders in health IT share their experiences, thoughts and lessons learned on being a woman in technology.

Note: Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What got you interested in a career in technology and in health IT in particular?

Mylea Charvat, PhD, Founder and CEO, Savonix: As a clinician [Dr. Charvat earned her doctorate in clinical health psychology and completed post-doctoral training in clinical psychology and neuroscience at Stanford (Calif.) University School of Medicine], I wanted to move beyond the treatment room and create affordable access to diagnostics and care. Digital health is the perfect tool for that.

Ruby Raley, Associate Vice President of Product Strategy, Edifecs: I was good at math and science but didn't know what careers were open to me. I loved game theory, if only I knew that I could have a job doing that. I found programming by accident and immediately knew it was right for me. After working my way up from programmer to division CIO, I crossed the aisle and became a product manager for a supply chain software company. Healthcare supply chain had so much need and so much potential that I went back to industry.

Mandira Singh, Director, athenahealth's More Disruption Please: Healthcare is one of the most backward industries — and might be the only reason the fax machine exists. This means it's a space prime for disruption. It's the big needs in healthcare that fascinated me, and it's been thrilling to watch entrepreneurs step up to fill them.

Lena Cheng, MD, Vice President of Medical Affairs, Doctor on Demand: I've always been fascinated by the potential for digital health to address the big problems in healthcare, and that passion is how I landed at Doctor On Demand. Technology has the power to transform health care in so many ways, making services and products more scalable and empowering patients and providers with new tools and information.

Ashley Simmons, Director of Innovation Development, Florida Hospital (Orlando): I found technology involved in 99 percent of my work. I've always reviewed my projects with the three-pronged approach of people, process and technology. In today's healthcare environment, there's no getting around technology. With everything from digital health to population health tools evolving, it's a very exciting time.

Q: Did you experience any gender-based biases on your career path? How did you handle such instances?

Dr. Mylea Charvat: Yes, in particular when I was raising money for my company. One venture capitalist told me outright that he would invest in my company that day if I were a man, but that as a woman CEO of a "certain age," I represented a risk to him. I would want to have a baby and that would derail his investment. He went on to describe how, as a woman with natural yearnings for things like children; I could never compete with entrepreneurs like his son, a man in his 20s.

I simply moved on. In the end, I don't want to work with people that exhibit sexist attitudes, so I found good partners that support women, like Sunny Singh, the CEO of Edifecs and seed investor in my company Savonix.

Mandi Bishop, Health Plan Analytics Innovation Practice Lead, Dell: Yes, as I believe most of us have, and I continue to face gender bias on a regular basis. As a woman in technology, I am frequently the only woman in the room. Many of the gender differences have been subtle. For example, it is not unusual for my fellow meeting attendees to automatically assume I am transcribing the meeting (even if I'm facilitating) and will distribute notes immediately following (even if I'm hosting the post-meeting networking event). It is also common for me to be the only person who is not given the opportunity to introduce myself before a meeting starts.

I take control of the more subtle examples above. I establish the meeting scribe and timeline for notes distribution prior to starting each meeting, and only volunteer if it's appropriate to do so. I ensure that I introduce myself even if the others forgot to provide the opportunity.

Janet Thomas, President, Bay Area Nursing Informatics Association: As a nurse, being a woman was expected. And women often ran our unit and showed our doctors how to enter the orders. Since then, I've been fortunate enough to work with some incredibly talented and intelligent women. I've noticed the technology field has more gender bias, but even here we have an incredible amount of empowered people of both genders.

Ruby Raley: Let me count the times. Everything from pay inequity to harassment.

To address pay inequity, I changed jobs and demanded what I knew was market value. I was able to negotiate 30 percent raises in my base (I did this more than once to adjust for pay differentials); employer HR restrictions and the lack of a champion/sponsor gave me few options other than changing jobs. You can fight city hall or you can change cities.

Mandira Singh: I started my career in investment banking before moving to a venture capital firm. While the biases weren't necessarily conscious decisions, they were fairly institutionalized and built into culture. For instance, only men were going out for drinks after the partner meeting, and there were male-only golf outings. The exclusion made it all the more clear that I was one of the few women. I chose not to play into this dynamic and challenged the exclusionary culture head on. I asked if I could join their outings — and made a point to say 'yes' when I was invited.

Emily Peters, Founder, Uncommon Bold: I've been fortunate that even though I've been in male-dominated industries (sports, finance and health IT) I've worked with teams that are stronger on the diversity front. Getting comfortable with being the only woman in the room — or at the conference — can be frustrating at times. I did have one memorable moment at HIMSS where someone asked me if my company had "any executives at the booth...or just women?" I was a vice president at the time, and this essentially made my head explode.

I encourage women to always fight for themselves — ask for the promotion, go for the big project, put yourself out there — and to say something right away if you pick up on a bias. Most of the time, that bias is coming from an unconscious place and calling attention to it helps everyone learn. Don't put up with any nonsense comments about things like the way you dress or your voice.

Ashley Simmons: Yes – and I experienced age bias on top of being female. Starting my career path young presented some challenges. I had to work twice as hard to be taken seriously, and prove myself to my colleagues and customers. I even wore what I called "grandma suits" to look more professional and older at such a young age. Now I am teased for being the one who usually has her heels kicked off in meetings! Ultimately, I found that being myself actually worked best. I am a strong, yet soft person. I'm strong when needed, but typically easy-going. I had to learn when to leverage which side and tone. As women, we may have an idea, but choose not to voice it in order to give others a chance to speak. I had to learn to speak up and offer my thoughts or opinions to ensure I was noticed and identified as a leader and not a bystander, while still respecting the voice of others. Sometimes, a man who repeats my point may get the credit, but I continue to press on and let my results speak for themselves. At the end of the day, it's about a better community and not who gets the credit.

Q: We often hear women aren't aggressive or forthright enough in the workplace, but when woman do exhibit these characteristics emblematic of their male counterparts, they are often painted in a negative light as "bossy." How do you get around this dichotomy and remove this one-sided stigma?

Mandi Bishop: Even when I've been the boss of my own companies, I've never been okay with being called "bossy," and it has definitely happened. I tend to be very direct, especially in writing, and it has afforded me several "chats" with leaders along the way, addressing my "attitude." While some of that is fair, some of it is driven by the perception of bossiness. When I am coached on my attitude or communication style, I listen and try to take something positive from the experience: How might I have handled the situation — or the communication itself — differently? There is always a lesson to learn. Sometimes that lesson is, "so-and-so needs handholding," or "so-and-so is sensitive to topic X but receptive to Y."

Janet Thomas: I've been in my position long enough to be respected based on my actions and opinions. I'm sure I'm still referred to as "bossy," but I don't hear it anymore.

Mandira Singh: I don't think there is a simple answer. I have never been professionally penalized for being aggressive. While being direct and results-oriented has helped me progress in my career, it's true that it hasn't helped me win popularity contests. I look forward to the day when it's okay for women to be assertive without being arbitrarily labeled bossy (or worse). However, we do ourselves a disservice to think we can — or should — be liked by everyone at work.

Dr. Lena Cheng: There's a societal assumption that women are expected to be more nurturing, collaborative and kind, while men are expected to be assertive, commanding and direct. The truth of the matter is women are and can be all these things. It's not mutually exclusive to be collaborative and also assertive. It's a balance between fostering collaboration and also setting expectations about what my role as a leader is.

Ashley Simmons: I can be my strong, opinionated self as a woman, but I have to ensure a balance in how and when I present my opinions like anyone else. Those who know me and have worked with me have commented positively on my style and demeanor, knowing I only push aggressively when it is necessary and critical to the work we have to accomplish. Even then it's with a stern, yet respectful tone. The key is remembering the vein in which you're speaking; Don't speak out of spite, jealousy or with negative intent — that will always show. Only speak up with the right intentions and convictions; no one can fault you when you do that.

Q: What actions can we take now — both women and men — to ensure equality in the workplace moving forward?

Dr. Mylea Charvat: First and most of all, we need to make companies more family friendly for men and women! For instance our CFO [Anna Bellinghausen] has an MBA from UCLA Anderson School of Management and years of finance experience. She also has two small children at home and wants to be part of their lives each day. As I write this, our creative director is handling a family emergency that took her out of the office during our beta launch week. Both need flexibility to do their work and also put family first. I think we have to stop pretending that working 8 to 5 in an office is how executive level work gets done and think beyond four walls in corporate culture.

Ruby Raley: For leaders, courage is necessary. Understand market value and ensure that all of your team is earning appropriately. This can mean stepping up and demanding budget and attention in a professional but persistent manner. For colleagues, value everyone's authentic voice, but do not tolerate bullies in the workplace. Your corporate values probably include respect and collaboration, so live those!

Mandira Singh: I do think there is low-hanging fruit. First, remove words like "emotionally-charged" from the lexicon of calibration and reviews. It's unfortunate that to be perceived as professional, women and men feel the need to abandon all emotion. We need to allow people to bring their whole selves to work. In addition, women have an obligation to mentor other women to help pave the way — and not necessarily through formal programs. I've known women leaders who have worked really hard to get to where they are, but feel threatened by newcomers and turn competitive. We owe it to those just starting their careers to help make it easier rather than asking the next generation to jump through the same hoops.

Emily Peters: Everyone needs to check themselves on it often. Look at the data. Are the women on your team getting different opportunities, different salaries? Is your entire board and leadership team all men? When you're putting together a job spec, do you have a certain gender in mind? Is your list of candidates for a job diverse? If you're putting together a speaking panel — for Pete's sake — is there at least one woman included?

Ashley Simmons: We have to understand and accept that women will always approach relationships and work differently than men. However, it is the results that matter. We shouldn't judge the approach in achieving them, but rather the character and manner in which the results are achieved.

More articles on health IT:

HIMSS16 highs: 26 attendees on their most exciting moments
2 Epic go-lives, 2 Cerner contracts; GE Healthcare to provide EMR for 2016 Olympic Games; Allscripts takes on population health — 14 health IT key notes
18 latest data breaches

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