News & Analysis

4 Issues Facing Women in Healthcare Leadership

Robert Jones

A woman's back is seen against a gray sky after she has climbed many steps in the foreground. Photo by Daniel Thiele via Unsplash.

For women in healthcare, a funny thing happens on the way to the top.

At the start of their careers, women in the healthcare industry outnumber men by 3 to 1, and they continue to dominate at manager and senior manager levels, according to the 2022 Women in the Workplace Study. Starting at the VP level, however, women’s representation drops off sharply until they are outnumbered 2 to 1 in the C-suite.

The attrition rate for women in healthcare (a drop of 43 percentage points) is nearly twice as high as the attrition rate across all industries (a drop of 22 percentage points). In other words, healthcare is unusually welcoming to women who are just starting out, but other industries seem to treat women better as they rise in seniority.

Joann Anderson is one leader who broke through the glass ceiling. Starting off as a bedside nurse, she rose through the ranks to become a successful hospital CEO, and she continues to serve on the board of a large, regional health system.

As a senior advisor and head of Ascendient’s Leadership Coaching practice, Joann also spends much of her time helping other women navigate their careers, so we had to ask her: What are the top issues facing women in healthcare leadership.

She offered four answers.

  1. Imposter syndrome. “Women feel inequity and gender bias in the workplace the higher in leadership they go,” Joann said. “As a result, imposter syndrome creeps in – you start doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud or imposter.”
  2. Gendered expectations. “Women in leadership are often viewed as being aggressive even if they respond to a situation exactly the same as a man would respond.”
  3. Career path bias. “In healthcare, the majority of women begin their careers as nurses or in clinical roles, while men are more often educated in business programs, participate in internships etc. This is often viewed as a negative when being evaluated for upper-level positions.”
  4. Development deficit. “Women are less likely to be chosen to participate in growth and development programs.”
How to Defy the Attrition Odds

As both a lifelong mentor and a professional coach, Joann has helped many women deal with these career impediments. And while she stresses that every situation is unique in 100 different ways – including personalities, history, and workplace culture – she does have some advice that might be broadly applicable.

  1. For imposter syndrome, talk to someone who’s been there. Every woman in healthcare leadership knows what it’s like to look around the executive conference table and see only (or mostly) men. When you start to doubt your abilities, ask other women in the industry how they conquered their own doubts. The conversation might just be cathartic for both of you. Of course, a regular coach or mentor can make a huge difference here.
  2. For gendered expectations, don’t be afraid to point out the double standard – tactfully. “I’m here because I have some kind of expertise, just like everyone else. I was trying to make an important point, and I didn’t mean to come off as aggressive. How would you have made the point, if you were in my shoes?”
  3. For career path bias, own your background while acknowledging your blind spots. Your experience as a nurse or clinician is precisely why your voice is needed at the table. You have a perspective that complements all the MHAs and other specialized degrees in the room. At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt to acknowledge if you need some strategy training to round out your operational background, which leads directly to the final point …
  4. For development deficit, start with the Socratic advice to “Know thyself.” Or, in Joann’s words: “One of the first things we all have to do is take a deep look at ourselves and know who we are, focusing on identifying our individual values, recognizing our weaknesses, and being willing to seek out opportunities to improve those.”

Again, Joann stresses that none of this advice is one-size-fits-all. But the point remains that even if the C-suite is not fair or equitable, there are strategies for recognizing and dealing with career impediments.

“We need women in leadership,” Joann says. “No one says it will be easy, but correcting those attrition rates will make the healthcare system better for everyone.”

If you’d like to know more about Joann’s work in Leadership Coaching, please contact us for further details.