Women hold 15% of CEO roles at health systems, insurance groups, study finds

Across more than 250 healthcare organizations, women less frequently held CEO positions than other senior leadership, board of director or chairperson roles.

Just over 15% of the CEOs leading medium-sized health systems and health insurance groups during spring 2021 were women, with other senior leadership roles such as chief financial officers, chief operating officers and chief information officers all exceeding 20% representation, according to new study data recently published in JAMA Network Open.

Overall, roughly 20% to 50% of senior leadership positions at systems and payers were filled by women, researchers wrote in the journal. Women held the board of director chairperson role at 17.5% of health systems and 21.3% of health insurance groups.

The gender composition of those leadership teams appeared to have some connection as to whether an organization was headed by a woman, the researchers wrote.

In health systems, a female CEO was significantly associated with higher proportions of women holding either board of director seats or other senior executive positions, according to the study.

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“Members of the [board of directors], whose primary responsibility includes choosing a CEO, appeared to have a role in increasing the representation of women as CEOs in health systems when the [board of directors] had a more gender-diverse composition,” the researchers wrote.

Among health insurance groups, the association was limited to female CEOs and executive teams with a higher proportion of women.

The researchers said their findings are a stark contrast against the rest of the women-majority U.S. healthcare workforce—not to mention the general U.S. population—and support increased prioritization of gender diversity among healthcare leadership.

“[Women] are generally underrepresented on leadership teams, which likely diminishes their role in policy decisions that affect population and women’s health,” the researchers wrote. “In addition, a recent study reported an association between gender diversity in organizational leadership and improved organizational performance, suggesting the loss of cognitive capital with the underrepresentation of women on executive teams.”

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The researchers conducted their analysis by reviewing healthcare organization websites between April and May 2021. To be included, health systems were required to have a minimum of five affiliated hospitals while health insurance groups needed to claim at least 0.09% of the U.S. health insurance market share.

In total, the study included 3,911 senior executives and 3,462 board of director members from 161 health systems and 108 insurance groups.

The analysis also extended to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which proved an exception to the industry’s broader gender representation trends. Here, the researchers found women comprised 58.1% of the 31 identified leadership positions.

The researchers noted their study may have been limited by their approach to classifying organization leaders’ genders, which relied on a combination of names, gender identifiers and photographs. Leaders’ genders were exclusively binary, they wrote, and those for whom a determination could not be made were excluded from the analysis.