The Top 25 Women in Healthcare: Gender diversity a work in progress

Dr. Lynn Simon returned to school for a master’s degree in business a decade after entering practice as a neurologist.

She put both degrees to work as she was repeatedly promoted, including in her most recent role as chief quality officer and president of clinical services for Community Health Systems, a large hospital chain.

There is no scarcity in the pipeline for talented female executives. Women account for nearly half of law school and medical school graduates, and they make up one-third of all graduates in MBA programs. “Education level is not the problem,” said Paula Bobrowski, associate dean for research and faculty development at Auburn University.

In addition, women dominate the healthcare workforce by a ratio of 3-to-1.But organizations need to develop and expand efforts that promote opportunity for women at the top levels of management. “Most of the healthcare workforce is women, (but) the rate at which they’re rising is the stumbling block,” said Deborah Bowen, CEO of the American College of Healthcare Executives. She’s also one of this year’s Top 25 Women in Healthcare.

Mentoring and career-development programs can give women exposure to new opportunities as well as visibility within an organization. “There are a lot of women in middle management and they get stuck there,” said Bobrowski, who earned degrees in nursing and business administration but left healthcare for academia where she saw more opportunity for advancement.

Progress in recent years has increased the number of women in the healthcare C-suite.

“The (healthcare) sector, in my experience, is ahead of general commercial sector,” said Michael Peregrine, a corporate governance attorney with McDermott, Will & Emery. Yet more progress is needed, he said.

The women’s advocacy organization Catalyst reported that women accounted for 14.6% of all executive officers at Fortune 500 companies in 2014, not much different than the 13.5% five years earlier. “It is incumbent on the board to be sensitive to issues of gender diversity at every level,” Peregrine said. The board that ignores or rejects diversity “will be an outlier.”

Healthcare organizations have made investments in recent years to boost diversity among executives, thanks in part to governing boards that increasingly have focused on the diversity of their organizations’ leadership teams. Susan O’Hare, senior vice president for Integrated Healthcare Strategies, who consults with healthcare companies on leadership and governance, said boards are taking notice when their organization’s C-suite gets “heavily gender-weighted toward the gender of the CEO.” Boards also face growing pressure to diversify their membership.