Report: Women like to work in healthcare, but barriers to advancement remain

Female executive leading meeting
A new study examines how female workers are faring in the healthcare industry. (Getty/Sam Edwards)

Healthcare is a good industry for women to work in, but barriers remain for those seeking to reach the C-suite—especially for women of color, according to a new study. 

Researchers at McKinsey & Company examined pipeline data from 33 healthcare companies, surveyed nearly 11,000 employees at 11 companies and interviewed 10 senior executives to compile a report on how female workers are faring in the healthcare industry. 

They found that women are better represented at all levels in healthcare than in corporate America overall. For example, women make up 63% of the entry-level workforce and 30% of the C-suite in healthcare, compared to 48% and 22%, respectively, across all industries. 

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However, women still face significant challenges in the healthcare leadership pipeline, according to the report, and these especially impact minority women. White women make up 26% of the healthcare C-suite, and women of color make up just 4%. 

“There are some great things about healthcare, and you see it here,” Gretchen Berlin, McKinsey partner and one of the study’s authors, told FierceHealthcare. “I think what we also take away is how disheartening it is to see similar challenges [for women] that we see across industries.” 

RELATED: Women only make up 30% of healthcare executives. Here’s a look at why 

Women make up 63% of the healthcare workforce overall, meaning they’re underrepresented at the executive level across the board, the researchers said. 

There are additional positives, the study found. Women working in the healthcare field reported higher job satisfaction than men and were also more likely to say they received what they wanted in compensation negotiations, according to the study. Seventy-five percent of women were likely to say they were satisfied in their careers, compared to 71% of men. 

One executive said part of what may be driving that feeling is that women can enter the healthcare field and can try their hands at many different roles within their career. 

“Women can get into healthcare, stay there for many years and have a variety of experiences,” the executive said. 

RELATED: Survey—Majority of women working in healthcare don’t expect parity for 25 years 

However, the report identified three main factors that are holding women back from increasing their presence in the C-suite: structural challenges such as hiring practices, institutional factors that allow for continued bias against women and a workplace that does not promote an inclusive environment. 

What can be done to address these issues? For one, companies—both within and outside of healthcare—need to commit to tracking and improving diversity, Berlin said. This includes communicating that diversity is important as part of an internal mission, she said. 

“I personally am surprised, in the organizations that I interact with, of how many don’t even know what their pipeline looks like,” Berlin said. 

Improving company culture may require an investment in diversity or sensitivity training, according to the report, to make the environment more welcoming for women. Addressing these challenges can be especially crucial for women of color, according to the report, as these barriers are likely amplified for minority women. 

RELATED: 6 recommendations from ACP to foster gender equity in pay and career advancement 

Healthcare organizations should also review their hiring practices and ensure those are designed fairly. One area where women may be left behind, according to the study, is in external hiring, which favors men. 

Women may also avoid promotions because of the type and amount of work required, so allowing for greater flexibility in scheduling and more of a work-life balance may attract more female workers to leadership positions, according to the report. 

One biopharma company, for example, is being less stringent with where leaders are based to address this. 

“Women disproportionately bear the challenge of balancing family versus travel and long hours,” one of the interviewed leaders said. “They often choose to invest in family over careers, when it’s not a zero-sum game." 

“Companies can be more progressive in offering benefits that resonate with women, such as extended maternity leave, childcare credits [and] teleworking,” the leader said. 

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