The United States health care industry impacts people across the nation and around the world. Health care has evolved over the years, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, due in part to the exponential technological advancements that have improved patient care, treatment follow-up and other important issues.
Health care has been a male-dominated field without much room for women to advance in the past. Although the playing field continues to shift, women still struggle to break through to the higher levels of health care leadership. That power dynamic is particularly interesting because women tend to be the primary decision-makers when it comes to the health care, they and their family members receive.
Some industries have seen significant growth among women in leadership positions, but the health care industry continues to move slowly. The number of women serving in executive roles in this industry has remained fairly low since 2015. Only 15.3% of health system CEOs were women in 2021, according to a study by JAMA Network Open. The same study found that only 15.8% of health insurance company CEOs were women.
Research reports a variety of major traits that powerful successful female CEOs and top business leaders possess. Twelve of the traits include: Strength, entrepreneurial spirit, perseverance, adaptability, how to avoid bad advice, empathy, humility, persuasiveness, resilience, positivity, commitment to life-long learning and vision.
Women health care executives perform well in multiple aspects of leadership that are critical to the health care industry.
For example, a 2021 study by McKinsey & Company and Leanin.org found that within 423 companies across the U.S. and Canada, women were better than men at:
- Providing emotional support to employees: 31% of women compared with 19% of men
- Considering the well-being of employees: 61% of women compared with 54% of men
- Helping employees navigate work-life challenges: 29% of women compared with 24% of men
- Intervening to prevent or deal with employee burnout: 21% of women compared with 16% of men
- Leading and supporting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts: 11% of women compared with 7% of men
Here are six actions that highlight attributes successful women leaders bring to health care leadership positions.
Mentorship is a relationship in which someone more experienced or knowledgeable helps guide someone less experienced or knowledgeable. This is very important because of the critical need to train the next generation of health care leadership.
Women leaders believe they have an obligation to mentor and support others and especially women to aid in their professional development, to build confidence and to guide them through challenges.
There is a very high demand today for strong leadership qualities in health care. One report indicates that 84% of organizations predict they will experience a shortage of skilled leaders in the next 5 years. So, mentoring and training are absolutely critical.
Challenge the “we’ve always done it that way” mentality
A great leader always will be thoughtful, deliberate and open to new ideas and new things such as testing a new process, idea or different approach. The leader is the major factor in whether or not an idea gets implemented and it depends upon the leader’s willingness to step outside their comfort zone.
Women leaders with an entrepreneurial spirit are willing to take small risks and reinvent the rules and turn challenges into opportunities.
A commitment to teach others is a fundamental component in health care and a key quality of a great leader. Great leaders have a responsibility to educate those that are following them and pass along knowledge to entire populations about important issues.
A life of constant learning with personal and professional growth is another powerful trait of strong women leaders. They use what they learn to lead by example.
The COVID-19 pandemic provided lots of opportunities to consider different ways of thinking and to realize that the knowledge base was changing and that new or better approaches were developing.
Humility is often considered a characteristic female leadership trait. A great leader is humble and has the ability to recognize and encourage different points of view and then be able to accept and change direction.
Create opportunities for others
Recognize and accept how important it is to focus on the next generation of health care leaders. Women leaders recognize this because opportunities empower women more broadly in society and this can have a positive impact on others.
A great leader must possess the ability to step out of the spotlight and let someone else take the lead so they can challenge themselves to grow and see what they can achieve. This will enable them to think about the path they want for their future through opportunities for them to build their foundation and achieve their personal goals.
Successful leaders inspire teams, boost productivity and help their organizations achieve their goals. Strong leadership is essential in health care because decision made at the top can and will have a profound impact on entire populations of other people. Women leaders believe they have a responsibility to pay it forward by empowering people, especially other women, to embrace opportunities and possibilities beyond the limits of their imagination.
Women that exhibit these actions can lead health care organizations that are efficient, effective and equitable.
“The first thing that came to my mind was an inclusive culture. And inclusive on a lot of different levels — not just from a diversity perspective, but also inclusive in decision-making and the feeling that you can come to work every day and do your very best for patients.”
Cheryl Nester Wolfe, RN, CEO at Salem (Ore.) Health Hospitals & Clinics, on which changes are needed within the healthcare work environment to improve retention.
Glenn Ebersole is a registered professional engineer and the Director of Business Development at JL Architects, a nationally licensed commercial architecture firm based in West Chester. He can be contacted by [email protected] or 717-575-8572.