Monday, August 19, 2013

Could an Empowered Patient Environment be the Catalyst for Women Healthcare Leaders to Thrive?

In today's Health 2.0, the patient is empowered. It's the patient's right to be kept abreast of what's happening with their health, so they can make informed choices about their health care. And, still, we've read and heard about too many instances when patients' concerns, interests, needs, and priorities have been minimized by a healthcare system that often values efficiency over empathy.

According to a Harvard Business Review report Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers, "... women’s leadership potential sometimes shows in less conventional ways—being responsive to clients’ needs, for example, rather than boldly asserting a point of view—and sometimes it takes powerful women to recognize that potential. But powerful women are scarce." Or are they?

This statement caused me to wonder: Could an empowered patient environment be a catalyst for women physicians and other female health practitioners to thrive?

There is data to support a difference in leadership abilities and traits between men and women. According to a 2011 survey of more than 7,000 leaders by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, women were voted to outrank men in 12 of 16 top leadership competencies.


These top leadership competencies include the ability to:

  • Display high integrity and honesty
  • Inspire and motivates others
  • Build relationships

I've teased out these three competencies in particular as they correlate well not only with creating an empowering environment for their fellow colleagues, but also one for their patients. Equally important are other competencies in which women were viewed to excel in this survey, which one may argue could help to change the landscape of the healthcare system on a broader level, including the ability to:

  • Take initiative
  • Develop others
  • Drive for results
  • Champion change

Sounds great? Perhaps ... until we explore deeper to uncover the one competency in which women were ranked to excel less than men: the ability to develop a strategic perspective. Why were women perceived to be less strategic?

Is it a result of long-held stereotypes? Is it because of a lack of women in top leadership positions? Or, perhaps, both of these factors have led to a phenomenon called second-generation gender bias? As suggested by Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely, and Deborah Kolb: "This bias erects powerful but subtle and often invisible barriers for women that arise from cultural assumptions and organizational structures, practices, and patterns of interaction that inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage."

Is there a second-generation bias in healthcare? To answer that question, I suggest we explore the proposed criteria and any data that may support or disprove this assertion. Some of the data can be found in the 2013 XX in Health report: The State of Women in Healthcare.

  • A paucity of role models for women

While 78% of the healthcare industry are women and 70% are administrators, only 19% are hospital CEOs -- and there are NO women CEOs that lead Fortune 500 healthcare companies

  • Gendered career paths and gendered work


In addition to the above, women are not represented well at the board level -- where they would have more opportunity to make strategic decisions about the direction of their organizations and the industry at-large


  • Women's lack of access to networks and sponsors

Many women are not perceiving the healthcare workplace to be supportive of their career goals -- 39% reported leaving their previous employers because of the company culture.

  • "Double binds" 

Ibarra, Ely, and Kolb describe this concept as: "The mismatch between conventionally feminine qualities and the qualities thought necessary for leadership puts female leaders in a double bind." Perhaps this explains the low ranking for strategic abilities in the Zenger-Folkman study.

So, what do you think -- is there second-generation bias in healthcare? If, so will it impact women healthcare leaders ability to thrive and succeed?

I've written this article in recognition of XX in Health Week, to explore the issue of gender diversity in health leadership. I welcome your thoughts and reactions to this information as well as what you see happening in your organization. I'd encourage you to continue the dialogue here -- and to participate in (or initiate) discussions about this gender diversity in your city and community.
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