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

Female executive leading meeting
The barriers holding women back in healthcare leadership may be "hidden from view," according to a new report. (Getty/Sam Edwards)

Women make up the vast majority of healthcare buying decisions and most of the healthcare workforce.

But when it comes to the C-suite at U.S. hospitals and insurers? There are still major shortfalls, with women making up only about 30% of healthcare executives and 13% of CEOs, according to new research from consulting firm Oliver Wyman. 

What gives?

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Many of the key barriers blocking women's advancement into boardrooms are “hidden from view" because they’re unconscious parts of peoples’ assumptions and biases, the report says. This can leave women pigeonholed.

“You really need to help the organization understand how these subtle factors play in,” said Terry Stone, a managing partner for Oliver Wyman’s Health & Life Science Practice and the report’s lead author. “It’s neither good nor bad—we all do it. We’re all human.” 

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

The problem

Stone and her team profiled more than 3,000 C-level healthcare executives and board members, studied the career paths of 112 CEOs and interviewed 75 men and women at the director level or above for the report.  

They found that men are not purposefully standing in the way of women reaching the top, with about 70% of executives saying they value egalitarianism in the C-suite, according to the report.

But building affinity is the cornerstone to building trust, Stone said, which is key to getting promoted. Affinity is driven by empathy between two people, and it’s much easier to empathize with someone similar. So it is more likely for men to build affinity with other men. In a male-dominated C-suite that translates to an easier path to leadership and trust, she said. 

A woman looking to get ahead may also be holding herself back in the pursuit of a perfect resume, according to the report. A results-driven approach could lead an up-and-coming employee to neglect leadership skills, stifling upward mobility. In addition, being too results-oriented could make her invaluable in a certain role, and thus stuck there. 

“Early on in a career, some of these intangible leadership qualities aren’t as critical and don’t factor in as much,” Stone said.

Later, the focus on results “comes at the expense of purposeful emphasis” on building connections and trust and developing a sponsor relationship with a higher-ranking team member. 

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

Men and women also approach issues differently, which can lead to misunderstandings, according to the report. Men are often coming at a problem from a “what” perspective, while women look for the “why,” which can lead to miscommunication on projects and contributes to the commonly cited trend of men talking over or interrupting their peers in meetings. 

The solution

Once a leadership team acknowledges these problems and decides to address them, there are several steps they can take, according to the report. One crucial piece is to offer leadership training and preparation unilaterally, and work under a clear definition of what leadership skills are, as it’s a “nebulous” concept, Stone said.

Employees should also have access to sponsors and mentors that can help them grow, if that’s their goal, according to the report.

However, none of the solutions will stick if the team—men and women both—aren't challenged to embrace diversity because it matters to them, not to tick a box or meet a quota, Stone said.

That means healthcare organizations need to set goals, benchmark and hold their team accountable for changing their behaviors. 

“Individual leaders recognize why this is so critically important, signaling their own personal motivation to act,” Stone said. “When you want to change something, you have to have a personal investment, that trigger of what’s making me committed to a change.”

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