How can we ensure medical leadership includes more women?

I read something recently that shocked me. Despite working in health care for 15 years, I had no idea that nearly 80 percent of the U.S. health care workforce is comprised of women (according to the Bureau of Statistics.)

I did know, however, that women make up less than 20 percent of executive boards and less than 40 percent of middle management in health care. Those that do exist in the C-suite are typically in the role of chief nursing officer, or human relations officer. Very few women hold positions such as chief executive officer, chief medical officer, chief information officer or chief financial officer.

That is a significant difference between the demographic makeup of those who are on the front lines of health care and those who are leading.  There is even more of a difference when comparing minority women at the front lines to minority women leading.

What I find most interesting is this:

When women do make it to the top, it is surprising. We act surprised, like somehow she has made it through the battle unscathed enough, still positive enough, and whole enough to lead. Somehow she is there, and we all wonder how.  Whether we say it out loud or not, we are thinking this: How did she make it? What did she do? We write books about it. We study it. We try and figure out what made the hero to be as such.

How many times have you heard someone say,  “And she did so, as a woman!” Or, wow, “the vice-president … or president of such and such … is a woman!”

Even I find myself thinking, “Wow, I wonder what she’s made of, to get there?”

Why do our first thoughts go to surprise? Because it is rare. It is surprising, and we all know it. We know what it takes to get there, the challenges and the hardships and the pure resolve. It takes grit, resilience, hard work and beating the odds.

The truth is, as professionals we tend to put forward those who are like us. Those who look like us, who act similar, who walk similar.  We all do this. Studies have shown we don’t necessarily even know we are doing it.  So while we may think we see both genders equally, and we have true intentions to put the best person forward, this simply may not be the case, even if it is our intent.

Men in leadership know more men in leadership. And because more men are in leadership, they tend to put forward more men. It takes an individual to recognize the importance of building women leaders to adjust the needle and move it a different direction.  And we know that 4 out of 5 times the person in that position to do so will be a man.

So what do we do? How do we work to ensure that women are included in leadership?

We do what we can to make sure that qualified women are options. How? We make sure women are visible; their accomplishments, abilities, talents, and efforts are clearly seen when leaders look for who to advance or call into a leadership position.

It is a simple step, but simply bringing women’s abilities and accomplishments to leaders’ attention is a huge move forward. When I see emails suggesting people for a position, I remind myself to think of both genders. When I sit on committees, and we are making decisions, I suggest both men and women who are qualified.

It starts with us. All of us. As a women leader in health care, I do my best to partner with men in leadership positions and encourage them to think of women to sponsor.

I would be lying to say this is easy; it is easier to stay silent and not speak up. But I know I must bring the attention forward and remind them respectfully to consider women for positions.

We must be aware of who is the health care workforce. Are we doing what we can do develop that workforce into leaders?

Start small. Speak up. Let’s all move the needle.

Sasha K. Shillcutt is an anesthesiologist who blogs at Brave Enough.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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