Women are incredibly influential when it comes to healthcare purchasing, and they represent a majority of the healthcare workforce. Then why aren’t women more represented in healthcare leadership positions, and why is such representation important?
Research from the Department of Labor shows that women drive up to 80% of all decisions when it comes to buying and using healthcare products and services. They also represent 65% of the healthcare workforce, much more than industries such as financial services (46%) or tech (26%). Despite this growing influence, markedly fewer women make it to the C-suite—just 13% are CEOs, according to Oliver Wyman’s 2019 Women in Healthcare Leadership report.
“Healthcare, unlike other industries, does not have a ‘women in healthcare’ problem, but a ‘women in healthcare leadership’ problem,” writes Terry Stone, managing partner, Health and Life Sciences, and global chair for I&D at Oliver Wyman.
Here are three of the barriers the Oliver Wyman report cites for the lack of gender diversity at the top of healthcare organizations:
• Women are seen as problem-solvers, not big-picture thinkers. Women are often slotted into execution-oriented roles rather than strategic roles because of their reputation for delving into nitty-gritty work and solving challenges. “When women do make it to roles reporting to the CEO, they tend to serve as technical experts (such as chief human resources officer, chief legal officer or chief information officer) where technical expertise potentially supersedes more intangible qualities such as leadership,” Stone writes.
• The playing field isn’t even. The affinity bias, or feeling a kinship with someone because of something you have in common, is an intangible but important factor in promotion decisions. “There is a natural human tendency to form more effortless connections with ‘people like me’ and men still hold most senior positions,” Stone says. “Engrained perceptions of male-female relationships serve as impediments to developing deeper, empathetic work relationships.”
• Women don’t promote themselves. Women aren’t top of mind when it comes to promotions because they believe their results should speak for themselves, rather than using them to promote themselves as effective leaders and to cultivate personal relationships with those in senior positions.
Overcoming these barriers and developing a more diverse workforce is advantageous for organizations for multiple reasons, including:
• It boosts an organization’s relatability. Given the aforementioned statistics on women’s vast buying reach, it only makes sense that they would have opinions on what was offered. “It’s in a health company’s best interests to involve women employees in the development, sales and servicing of their products and services,” writes Carla Smith, CEO of CarlaSmith.Health and an influential consultant for women in the healthcare industry.
• It helps an organization become more competitive and innovative. Fortune 1000 companies perform better financially when their boards of directors include women, according to Smith. And, according to a recent article by Rina Raphael in Fast Company, “Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams experience better financial performance than companies with the lowest women’s representation.”
• It helps ensure the right medical outcomes. In 1993, the National Institutes of Health finally began requiring government-funded health research to include women and minorities in clinical trials. “Given that a lack of diversity in your test group is highly likely to skew the results, this is a clear oversight and one that I don’t believe been allowed to persist if the NIH had had more women at a leadership level,” writes Claire Novorol, founder of Ada Health. “If the senior decision-makers within a business or industry have diverse backgrounds and experiences, then these kinds of issues are likely to be picked up on and addressed far earlier.”
Closing the gender leadership gap promises a multitude of benefits for companies of all sizes, but it will take leadership buy-in and a commitment to an organizational change.