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Gender Gap in Healthcare Leadership Roles

Despite making up the majority of the healthcare workforce, women are underrepresented in leadership roles

One of the most striking disparities in gender equality is found in upper-level management of hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Although many women hold nursing positions, most of the top decision-makers and healthcare managers are men.

A Rock Health report on the state of women in leadership positions within the healthcare industry found a significant gender gap in key leadership positions. Though women play a primary role in their families’ healthcare decisions and make up 78 percent of the healthcare workforce, they are still underrepresented in leadership roles. The report also outlined common disparities women face in matters of salary, parenting, career development and mentorship.

An article in the Journal of Healthcare Management notes, “… the number of women in leadership roles is increasing. But women remain underrepresented in the top echelons of healthcare leadership, and gender differences exist in the types of leadership roles women do attain. Salary disparity prevails, even when controlling for gender differences in educational attainment, age, and experience.”

The article goes on to note, “Despite widespread awareness of these problems in the field, current action and policy recommendations are severely lacking. Along with the challenges of cost, quality, and an aging population, the time has come for a more thoughtful, policy-focused approach to amend the discrepancy between gender and leadership in healthcare administration.”

Inequality is prevalent in related industries as well. A Modern Healthcare magazine article estimates that women hold a mere 21 percent of executive roles and represent 21 percent of board members at Fortune 500 companies specializing in healthcare.

One Woman’s Career, an Anomaly

The Modern Healthcare article notes that Ruth Brinkley, president and CEO of KentuckyOne Health, had few female peers in top executive positions in healthcare as she was gradually attaining positions of increased responsibility during her nearly four decades in upper management.

Brinkley became chief nurse executive of the University of Alabama Hospital in Birmingham, in a progression typical for senior women managers who have advanced through the ranks. However, she continued to move on to more advanced leadership roles, which is not typical for most women in her position.

There were a few aspects of her career that helped her move forward. She left the provider space for five years when she became a senior associate at APM/CSC Healthcare, a consulting firm. In that time, she developed her abilities in leadership outside of her previous clinical experience.

Brinkley’s willingness to take on ambitious challenges contributed to her upward arc. As leader of the 2012 merger of Jewish Hospital & St. Mary’s HealthCare with the St. Joseph Health System, she helped form KentuckyOne Health, an undertaking she characterized as daunting.

Brinkley, one of Modern Healthcare‘s Top 25 Women in Healthcare for 2017, noted that since the start of her career, she’s seen more women take their places in the top echelons of healthcare company management, but she said that it’s not moving ahead as much as it should.

For the most part, she has fared considerably better in her career than other women in her field, who represent just 26 percent of hospital CEO positions despite holding 75 percent of healthcare jobs.

Recognition of the Disparity

According to “C-Suite Gender Gap: Leadership Training Efforts Falling Short” published in Modern Healthcare, “This inequality at the C-suite level has gotten the attention of those healthcare organizations that are striving to improve the diversity of their leadership teams. Their efforts are helping women advance further along in their careers. But societal stereotypes and cultural norms continue to remain stubborn barriers standing in the way of faster progress.”

Many cultural standards and common stereotypes continue to hamper women who aim to transcend the career limitations that have been imposed on them. Healthcare organizations that have taken note of disparities in upper management are making efforts to ensure gender equality in the C suite. Their efforts to mitigate the inequities are aiding women who seek career advancement, with hospital medicine offering substantial opportunities for women to advance into leadership positions. Flora Kisuule, associate division director of Collaborative Inpatient Medicine Service (CIMS) at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, said that she is optimistic.

“My advancement speaks to hospital medicine and the fact that we are growing as a field,” she told The Hospitalist magazine. “Because of that, opportunities are presenting themselves.”

While gender inequality continues to exist in the highest levels of healthcare leadership, some organizations are working to offer women the opportunity to enter the ranks of upper management.

Fortunately, there are pathways to aid women who seek top management positions. One of the pathways is higher education, which can help nurses prepare themselves for leadership roles.

A strategy for advancement to leadership positions in healthcare may include further education, and an RN to BSN degree can provide a foundation for those who aspire to upper management positions in healthcare.

Learn about the Columbus State University online RN to BSN program.


Modern Healthcare: C-Suite Gender Gap: Leadership Training Efforts Falling Short

The Hospitalist: Does U.S. Healthcare Need More Diverse Leadership?

Rock Health: The State of Healthcare Gender Diversity 2016

Journal of Healthcare Management: Gender and Leadership in Healthcare Administration: 21st Century Progress and Challenges

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