Hospital Impact—To promote better care, put more women in leadership roles

Female executive leading meeting
If healthcare systems are serious about offering personalized care that considers the full scope of individuals’ needs, women must have stronger representation in leadership roles. (Getty/Sam Edwards)
Gwen MacKenzie

As the healthcare landscape evolves, the need for gender diversity in our leadership ranks is more evident than ever before.

In order to build a model that supports both collaboration and innovation, we must pull from a variety of perspectives, experiences and proficiency. As a former nurse, I’m acutely aware that providers serve individuals across a wide spectrum of needs, education and backgrounds—each of which contributes to the way we deliver their personalized care.

For healthcare organizations, female leadership in upper management has proven to be a necessity. The incorporation of clinical expertise in administrative roles has also brought attention to the fact that a one-size-fits-all approach cannot sustain the health of our communities. To properly serve with compassion and understanding, our leadership must be as diverse as the populations we treat. We must have leaders who understand the health trends that vary between genders and who have been trained in both a clinical and business setting.

At Ascension, the nation’s largest nonprofit health system, we have come a long way in elevating women to executive leadership positions—a prime example being Patricia A. Maryland, Dr.PH, who serves as president and CEO of Ascension Healthcare. And across Ascension Michigan, four of our six most senior executives—myself included—are female.

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Women have potential to create an incredible impact considering that nationally, we hold 75% of healthcare jobs, but represent only 26% of hospital CEO positions. Further, a study published by the Journal of Healthcare Management notes that based on American College of Healthcare Executives surveys, female healthcare executives report significantly lower salaries than male executives.

The income disparity and unbalanced gender executive ratio highlight the bias that inevitably takes place in hospital cultures when female perspectives are diminished. To mitigate the gaps in feedback, hospital executives would benefit from actively pursuing female viewpoints and diversifying C-suite representation through deliberate mentorship.

These facts raise the question: Why aren’t there more women in healthcare leadership roles? It’s difficult to reduce such a multifaceted problem down to one factor. In addition to healthcare’s imbalance in gender representation among leadership, other industries see the same trends. Women account for just 16% of executive leadership positions in the United States, according to research from the consulting firm McKinsey.

While this is a complex issue, gender stereotypes, family responsibilities and the glass ceiling can also contribute to the female career trajectory. We need to understand the value of diversity and work to provide career environments that offer fair pay and are conducive to family life.

According to one report, from the nonprofit research and advisory organization Catalyst, companies with more women board directors attain significantly higher financial performance. If healthcare systems are serious about offering personalized care that considers the full scope of individuals’ needs—their background, history, environment and beliefs—women must have stronger representation. Female influence makes a difference not only for the sustainability of a health system, but also for the individuals we aim to serve with a personalized model.

I urge healthcare providers to make a concerted effort to advance women to leadership positions in healthcare and across all industries. As a female CEO and former nurse, I understand the challenges that women face in their pursuit to be elevated to C-suite. I encourage women leaders to embrace your strengths, experience and unique perspective—and bring other women with you.

We have a lot left to accomplish on this journey, but I have full confidence that my vision of gender-balanced executive healthcare teams is achievable and will better serve the individuals who come to us for care during their greatest time of need.

Gwen MacKenzie is the senior vice president of Ascension Healthcare and ministry market executive of Ascension Michigan.