HIMSS16: Addressing gender gaps in wages and access to management, C-suite roles

LAS VEGAS -- Although gender disparity is a problem across all industries, the gaps seem especially pronounced in the health IT field. One only has to look around any room where health IT professionals are gathered to see it.

But the Healthcare Information Management and Systems Society says it will work to level the playing field for women when it comes to wages and access to upper management and executive positions. 

This year's annual HIMSS leadership survey, released yesterday at the group's annual meeting, included additional analysis from the group's 2015 compensation survey.

To attract and retain the best IT employees, healthcare employers must carefully consider compensation and career pathways, according to a summary report.

"When it comes to health IT workers, there is cause for concern in both areas," it states. Based on HIMSS survey findings, "it is very possible our sector unconsciously employs an unbalanced reward system favoring males."

There's a "huge disparity" in gender across senior management and executive leadership roles: Only 14 percent of females in the survey are represented at those levels, compared to 21 percent of males. And non-executive women earn about 80 percent of what men in the same roles make.

Over time, salaries do increase for both men and women. "But women never reach parity," Carla Smith, executive vice president of HIMSS America, said at a press event here yesterday.

But what can a professional organization--even one the size of HIMSS--do to solve a problem that is so entrenched? It starts with more research and raising awareness, Smith said. "Sunlight is a great disinfectant."

She also pointed to HIMSS' new "Influential Women in Health IT" awards program as a way to highlight women who have an impact on the profession and demonstrate the return on investment of a diverse leadership team.

And she said HIMSS would look into mentoring programs, online resources for women in the health IT field and helping organizations that have taken concrete steps to expand diversity share best practices with their peers.

Dana Alexander, R.N., vice president of clinical transformation at healthcare consulting firm Divergent, said the industry must commit to mentoring, coaching and repositories of information for women. A lot of organizations and companies talk about their diversity, she said, but there's not a "clear understanding" at the C-suite level about what that means.

At Chicago's Metro Health System, a diversity department employees a dozen people. The organization has raised the bar when it comes to diversity, Don Reichert, vice president and CIO, said at the press event. "There are a lot more diverse folks on the executive team," he said--the number has about doubled since he started.

It's good for patients, too. "The population we serve is very diverse," he noted. "Understanding their needs is important."  

This year's conference features several events focused on professional development for women, including a session later today, led by CIOs Sue Schade and Deanna Wise, for women who aspire to the C-suite.

HIMSS will also expand its annual compensation survey to identify disparities based not only on gender but also on age, race and ethnicity.

So, why now? "It was me," Smith said. "There was something … that caught my attention in an unpleasant way. So I asked our research team to look into it."

There's always been talk in the hallways about the lack of diversity in the health IT field, Alexander said. Now it's time to transform that talk into action. 

To learn more: 
- check out the new Influential Women in Health IT awards program
- get information about the 2015 leadership survey here

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