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Ceiling still high for women in health care Underrepresentation in executive ranks remains a national issue

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Women play a key role in health care — as workers, caregivers, and consumers — but they’re underrepresented when it comes to leadership roles, according to a report by a venture fund dedicated to digital health.

“Not a single woman serves as CEO of a Fortune 500 health care company,” according to a 2017 Rock Health report. “Only 22.1 percent of their board members are women, about the same level as the Fortune 500 overall. As evidence of the sluggish improvement, in 2015, 21.0 percent of Fortune 500 health care board members were women. At this rate, we won’t reach 50/50 gender parity on health care boards until 2049.”

Overall, the percentage of women executives at hospitals has remained about a third of all executives, according to the report. “Women in the startup world have also seen little change: The percent of women CEOs of funded digital health startups, as well as the percent of women VC partners, stands around 10 to 12 percent.”

A glum outlook

Some women don’t think the situation will be changing much, either. In a Rock Health survey of more than 300 women in health care, nearly half of respondents said they think it will take 25 or more years “until we achieve gender parity in the workplace,” while only 7.5 percent say it will happen in the next five years. And a whopping 16.1 percent think women will never achieve gender parity.

The numbers may be sobering, but some women in New Jersey, at least, are breaking the health care glass ceiling. They acknowledge the challenges that exist — from unconscious bias to legacy issues — but they’re also optimistic about improving the situation.

Women need to continue to “lean in,” and be more assertive and seek out leadership roles, according to Amy Perry, senior vice president, integrated care delivery at Atlantic Health System and CEO of the health care organization’s Hospital Division. “But boards and senior executives also need to ‘pull up,’” she said. “We need to work together to promote women in board governance roles and women leaders at every level need to find mentees to support. This requires a real commitment.”

At Atlantic Health System more than 50 percent of the executive team is made up of women, she noted, calling it “a testament to the organization’s commitment to delivering opportunities for women.”

Atlantic Health System is also working to institutionalize efforts to recognize and promote women, essentially baking it into the corporate culture. “Following recognition by Fortune magazine as a Great Place to Work for Women earlier this year, a Women’s Leadership Committee was developed to nurture and sustain the culture, celebrate this recognition and help raise awareness about the dynamic contributions women make,” she said. “This network supports the professional development of women of Atlantic Health System and celebrates their success.”

Bottom-line benefits

Increasing the number of women in executive positions isn’t just a feel-good initiative, she added. “The last time I reviewed the information, 60 percent of the health care workforce is comprised of women,” according to Perry. “It seems logical that 60 percent of the top health care leadership should reflect this workforce split. Women in the United States are the primary driver of health care decisions, and it is critical that women have a voice at the table in addressing the current challenges the health care industry now faces. Women leaders also bring a unique voice that helps focus prevention, treatment and research on women’s health issues.”

Atlantic Health System has acted on this commitment, she added, with a roster of women leaders across its institutions that includes Morristown Medical Center President Trish O’Keefe and Chilton Medical Center President Stephanie Schwartz. “They make a difference not only at their hospitals but across our system. As more women assume leadership roles in health care, we will see better health outcomes for women and families, along with the companies and caregivers that treat them.”

It still won’t be an easy journey, however, especially for working moms like Perry. “There are unique challenges in being a working mom,” she noted. “It is a tremendous challenge to give 100 percent to work and to family. We need to work together to celebrate men who share in child care responsibilities and reduce gender biases.”

Perry gave credit to her husband for supporting her career, but also stressed the need for women to demonstrate that they can handle increased responsibilities. “I was able to succeed because my spouse worked as a team with me to raise our kids and balance our careers,” she said. “Also, I didn’t select out. I took on challenges and stretched assignments and grew into the opportunities. Today, I take every opportunity help pull up other women, mentoring, speaking to women’s organizations and using my role as a leader to demonstrate that all of the effort and persistence will yield opportunity.”

For Perry, support among professionals as well as family members is a key component. “We need to support each other. I firmly believe in the need to ‘lift as you climb.’ It is important that we all work to facilitate new relationships and opportunities for growth among female leaders. This is important both in the workplace and throughout the industry.”

Expanding on her theme of holistic support, Perry said it’s also “imperative” for health care and other organizations to “seek to attract, develop and retain talented female leaders.”

A ‘gender-blind’ approach

Health care leader Mary Ellen Clyne — president and CEO of the RWJBarnabas Health System’s Clara Maass Medical Center — has been fortunate to work at gender-blind organizations, but she’s still vigilant about unintentionally prejudging a person because of their gender or other characteristic.

“In my experience, I haven’t seen bias within the RWJBH system, and that’s supported by the fact that we have many women in high-level C-suite positions,” said Clyne, who came to Clara Maass in 1999 as chief nursing officer and rose through the ranks while earning a Ph.D. at Seton Hall University. “We recognize and advance women leaders, and leadership fosters and advances current women leaders and aspiring ones. I may have a different perspective on some issues than my boss — Thomas A. Biga, president of the Hospital Division of RWJBarnabas Health — but he supports me.”

When Clyne gets a resume for a C-suite position, it’s a “blinded” one, with any gender clues stripped out. “I want to look at the credentials of people, not who they are,” she said. “Their address is blanked out too, in order to guard against an assumption based on where they live.”

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