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Women in Executive Healthcare Leadership: Lead with Your Natural Strengths

By Dr. Susan Glover, Vice President and Consultant

Women ExecutivesI have had the privilege to be a healthcare executive for 25 years. I started my healthcare career as a critical care nurse. At that time, nursing was a female dominated profession while the medical profession was primarily male dominated. This was my first experience of the gender gap in leadership at the bedside. That experience and the relationship between nurses and physicians had similar attributes to being a female executive in a male dominated C-suite today. reports the trend toward having more women in the C-suite, board of director or trustee roles developed slowly, up from 9.5% in 2010 to 22% in 2021. A recent study by McKinsey and Company, Women in the Workplace 2022, demonstrates women executives in healthcare are generally underrepresented in all positions except in Chief Human Resources (73%) and Chief Nursing Officer (91%) positions. Women account for 13% of system Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and only 27% of hospital CEOs. Overall, women are less likely to hold chief positions in large hospitals of 400+ beds compared to smaller hospitals with less than 100 beds. So, what are the implications of this situation? A woman interviewing for an executive position must be aware of the environment, understand her strengths, both personal and as a female executive, and utilize this information to interview in a manner that positions her as the obvious best choice.

What does the literature say about women in the C-suite?

I recently read two books on this topic, both highlighting this as a real issue. The books also point out the behaviors women executives can lead with to continue to change this dynamic. The first book, The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, written by British journalist and BBC broadcaster and author Mary Ann Sieghart, discusses the fact that despite all the progress we’ve made, women are still chronically overlooked and underestimated. Seighart describes the “Authority Gap” as the unspoken, unconscious bias that challenges women, based solely on their gender. This is the double standard that gives a man the benefit of the doubt, while constantly challenging a woman’s knowledge, expertise, and power.

The issue of competence and confidence comes into play in this gap. A man can be successful if he displays confidence, with or without competence. A woman, however, always needs to display competence to be taken seriously. Additionally,  feminine displays of confidence need to be handled in a way that is not perceived as aggressive, otherwise female executives may risk being labeled with less than flattering adjectives. This makes it difficult for a woman to speak up and be heard, leading to a vicious cycle of self-doubt and self- limitation. This was supported in the 2022 Workplace report which found woman leaders are twice as likely as men to be mistaken for someone more junior. The report also added that women are also “far more likely than men leaders to have colleagues question their judgment or imply that they aren’t qualified for their jobs.” This contributes to the erosion of a woman’s confidence as an executive leader.

Journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in their book, The Confidence Code, discuss the issue of low confidence in women, particularly those working in a male dominated environment. It is in these cultures that low confidence can be the most obvious and have the greatest consequences. However, the authors point out some good news – confidence can be developed. The book highlights three key concepts regarding confidence that are important:

  1. Confidence is a connector between what we think and what we do.
  2. Stereotypes and innate differences between men and women cause women to hold back.
  3. Confidence can be learned, even if we’re not predisposed to it.

What I have learned as part of the C-Suite in Healthcare.

Over my career as a healthcare executive, I have seen the landscape change in the C-suite. Traditionally, the typical female executive has been the Chief Nursing Officer, surrounded by male CEOs, CFOs, and COOs. However, this scenario is evolving. While the C-suite is still male dominated, female executives are holding a variety of executive roles. The focus on teamwork and culture in organizations has helped to close the gender gap to some extent. As healthcare executives, we are responsible for shaping the culture we want to see in our organizations. The most successful cultures are ones where there is trust, transparency, and the absence of fear. A culture like this tends to support confidence in individuals in the organization.

I have found that leading with humility and courage, and always being prepared has allowed my voice to be heard and my ability to lead significant organizational initiatives to be recognized. As a woman executive, knowing and leveraging my gifts of emotional intelligence and curiosity has been effective.

Dr. Susan Glover is a Vice President and Consultant with HealthSearch Partners,

About HealthSearch Partners: HealthSearch Partners is a nationally recognized healthcare executive search firm. We partner with mission-driven hospitals and health systems to find leaders who are focused on success. As a mid-sized firm, our senior search leaders work with clients throughout the engagement, accessing a larger pool of talent, to find the right candidate that is the right fit.