Women in the lead: How 1 health system is benefitting from 5 female presidents

The healthcare field as a career path for women is a tale of two journeys. According to McKinsey, healthcare outpaces other industries in its representation of women. Women account for 75 percent of entry-level healthcare roles, 70 percent of manager roles and 61 percent of senior manager or director roles. But the numbers change dramatically as promotion and retention rates and external hiring fail to keep pace to increase representation at the top. Just 45 percent of healthcare vice presidents are women and only 32 percent of women make it to the healthcare C-suite. 

Bucking these national trends is Tufts Medicine. All five member organizations of the Tufts Medicine system are led by women, which is creating a new dynamic at the top of the health system and providing a unique set of role models for aspiring healthcare professionals in the Boston area.

These executives represent a unique blend of women whose early careers were connected to organizations within the current Tufts Medicine health system and those who were attracted to senior leadership roles at an organization that has a long track record of valuing women leaders.

Amy Hoey, the first woman and first nurse to become president of Lowell General Hospital, started her career as a unit secretary at St. John’s hospital – now Lowell General’s Saints Campus. Amy’s career has spanned being a nursing unit manager, CNO nursing officer and COO before becoming president in 2022. 

She credits her career path to being a naturally curious person who likes to problem solve and seek out opportunities. “Women in healthcare aren’t always able to see channels for professional growth, but volunteering and saying, ‘yes’ with frequency can open doors and lead to rewards,” said Hoey.

Since starting in healthcare in 1986, she has welcomed the presence of more women in male-dominated roles. In environments where less trust and collaboration existed, Amy sees visible signs of people lifting each other up and celebrating their successes. “With five women presidents across the Tufts Medicine system, we have helped to create a strong sense of comradery and common purpose,” said Hoey. 

She hopes that the culture she and the other presidents are creating makes Tufts Medicine a destination workplace where employees see opportunities for career advancement at an organization.

Emily Young is another Tufts Medicine executive whose career advanced within the health system. As president of the Tufts Medicine Clinically Integrated Network, a network of private practice and employed physicians as well as academic providers, Young credits her many female mentors with creating collaborative and safe environments where she could grow her career, which began at Blue Cross and Blue Shield New Hampshire and Tufts Health Plan.

Because she has benefitted from inclusive environments throughout her career, Emily is fostering the same experience in her organization, particularly for the next generation of female physician leaders. “As female physicians have watched their male counterparts get further ahead, it’s been rewarding to create a more level playing field for aspiring female physicians.”

Young says that broader representation makes people feel more at ease and changes meeting dynamics. “When I’m in meetings with all men, the environment can be much more challenging. It can take a lot of effort to feel included and to find opportunities to engage.” 

While healthcare is making steady progress, Young says there is still room for improvement. “As deals get bigger and the stakes get higher, the pool of female representatives in the room gets smaller. That needs to change. We need to keep pushing and ensure that gender remains a key consideration with DEI initiatives.”

Diana Richardson didn’t start her career at Tufts Medicine, but healthcare was a focus as she worked at the front desk of an ambulatory practice. Her career has taken a non-linear path but has culminated in being appointed COO of Tufts Medical Center in 2019 and president in 2022. Her extensive and diverse experience in healthcare operations, including support services, IT and facilities, has helped as healthcare has become more integrated. “No parts of the mission and vision are optional. To manage strategy, finance, workforce shortages, DEI, IT and all of the other complexities, you have to be excellent in all aspects of leadership.”

She credits her peer women presidents with creating an immediate comfort level for her. “We’ve been able to quickly create a community that would have been different if I hadn’t been a woman. There was an immediate connection that is not typical in traditional work settings,” said Richardson.

Despite having distinct personalities, the five presidents take advantage of what each brings to the table. “We each bring something different to every meeting and we have our own lanes, but everyone is comfortable expressing her own personality. We tend to be direct and are willing to say what is often difficult, but we also know how to take the temperature down and focus on our vision,” according to Richardson.

Outside of meetings, the presidents text each other and are continually working together. “I’ve had great female colleagues and bosses in my career, but this community of women presidents at Tufts Medicine is something special,” said Richardson.

Kelly Corbi joined Tufts Medicine as president of MelroseWakefield Hospital and Lawrence Hospital in 2022 following a career spanning community and academic medicine, ambulatory services, skilled nursing and home health care, and managed care. Prior to Tufts Medicine, Corbi served as system COO for SolutionHealth and was system chief integration officer for LifeBridgeHealth, a five-hospital health system.

Corbi says it was rewarding for her as a job candidate to see so many women leaders. “I’m used to seeing one or two women in the C-suite, but here we have the reverse. It’s so exciting and it makes me really proud,” she said.

Corbi has noticed a higher level of engagement and ease with having difficult conversations. “Women tend to put things on the table sooner and make decisions instead of letting things linger. I also don’t have to wonder if I’ve been heard or if I’m using the wrong tone,” she said.

Tone is something that Corbi has noticed as an area of concern for women executives. “Women worry about sounding aggressive, instead of confident and in charge. We should learn to not change our style because that’s where our effectiveness is. We need to continue to be who we are. People want strong, effective and transparent leaders. Women can be all those things,” said Corbi.

Tufts Medicine is creating a collaborative culture, with the values being demonstrated by these women leaders serving as visible signs of progress. “The women presidents are very supportive of each other. We meet weekly to check in with each other. We help each other with projects. When times are tough, we step in to listen and provide suggestions. This is a completely unique experience in my career,” said Corbi.

Patricia O’Brien is the newest of the five and is serving as president of Tufts Medicine Care at Home. O’Brien has a vivid recollection of the first time the presence of her female colleagues struck her. “I was walking into a room at a board retreat, and I saw this line-up of the four other women presidents. It was astounding,” she said.

O’Brien has worked in roles where female voices have been diminished or lost. “It’s unfortunate because we can add so much, especially to culture discussions and decision-making processes. In one role I had, a male colleague had to come into a room full of men to tell them to listen to me when I was describing a high-stakes situation. It was disheartening that they didn’t believe what I was saying until my colleague stepped in,” she said.

O’Brien’s experiences at Tufts Medicine have been different. “There is much less competition to be heard in our meetings. We’re not trying to gauge when and where to have our voices heard, so we can be effective and engaged instead of jockeying for position,” she said.

O’Brien also speaks to the far-reaching impacts having women leaders has on the Tufts Medicine system. “The fact that there are so many women leaders at Tufts Medicine really speaks to the spirit of inclusiveness at our system,” she said. “I hope people are seeing us as an example of what representation looks like. I know that’s true for the women we work with who frequently pull one of us aside to say how proud they are to work at an organization with women in key roles,” said O’Brien.

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