Rock Health's Halle Tecco: No easy answer for dearth of female health execs [Interview]

While women make up a vast majority of the healthcare workforce, they remain woefully underrepresented in the C-suites of major healthcare organizations, according to a new report from Rock Health, a seed fund investing in digital health startups.

The report, "The State of Women in Healthcare 2015," found that women make up only 34 percent of executives at top-100-ranked hospitals, and only 21 percent of board members at Fortune 500 healthcare companies, despite comprising 78 percent of the overall healthcare workforce. What's more, of the 125 female executives at Fortune 500 healthcare companies, 47 of them are in human resources, communications or legal positions, which often don't lead them to rise to the top of organizations, Rock Health Managing Director Halle Tecco (pictured right) said in an exclusive interview with FierceHealthcare.

"The roles that women are taking aren't necessarily those that businesses use to funnel into a CEO role," she said.

Despite some progress--there is no longer a Fortune 500 healthcare company with an all-male board, while there were two in 2013--the share of women in healthcare leadership roles has remained relatively flat in recent years, Tecco said.

Though there's no easy answer as to why progress has been so hard to achieve, one theory is that women in the workplace get put on the "mommy track," in which their employers offer more flexibility to allow them to start families and end up unintentionally discouraging their advancement, according to Tecco.

"They think that they're accommodating women, but they're also at times putting them on the track that kind of precludes them from becoming leaders," she said. Further, the report found that childless, unmarried women made 20 percent more than married mothers in the healthcare industry, suggesting a "mommy penalty" effect.

Another possible reason for lack of female leadership is that the relative homogeneity of hospital boards can be a vicious cycle, Tecco said.

"If you only see men in leadership positions, the message that inherently sends to younger women managers and those that would be leaders is that they don't belong," she said.

This paucity of female executive role models also means there are fewer mentors for women who aspire to leadership positions, the report found. Indeed, 50 percent of women surveyed said they had less access to mentors than their male colleagues, a finding that suggests mainly "just a numbers game," Tecco said.

"Being kind of the unicorn, or the one that has made it, the demand on your time is a lot greater," she said. "Like if there's only one female on the executive committee, think about the dozens of female managers that would just love for that person to be their mentor. Think about all of the conferences that would love to have that woman speak."

A previous Rock Health report specifically highlighted the shortage of women speakers at healthcare conferences, noting that men were more likely to accept invitations to the organization's own conference, as well as more likely to volunteer to speak.

Lack of gender parity in healthcare extends further than the C-suite and at conferences, however. Not only are female doctors paid less than male ones, but a recent report found that male nurses continue to earn more than their female counterparts even in a traditionally female-dominated field, FierceHealthcare has reported. And there is still much work to be done to achieve gender equality in healthcare research and delivery.

Tecco acknowledged that there are no easy solutions to the persistent issue of gender discrimination in healthcare, but noted that research into the matter helps the cause.

"Our approach is, let's use data to showcase this problem and start a dialog around it," she said. "The first step is awareness."

To learn more:
- here's the report