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Women CEOs: Ruth Bader Ginsburg inspires us to advance equity

Health care chief executives and other leaders discuss the need to continue Ginsburg’s legacy by advancing diversity and equity, purposefully encouraging others to pursue leadership positions and building a foundation for women to succeed. 

Tom Sullivan | September 23, 2020

With the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, women chief executives are reflecting on her legacy as they continue forging ahead in their own pursuits to establish a more equitable health care system.  

“Justice Ginsburg was a true inspiration to us all. Her life, legacy and wisdom captivated and encouraged us to strive for a more just and equitable world — and to encourage others to do the same,” said Gail Boudreaux, President & CEO, Anthem. “She helped women find their voice and served as a true champion in her fight for a level playing field. As women leaders, we have all benefited from her advocacy and success.”  

Photo credit: Supreme Court of the United States via Wikimedia Commons

Commonwealth Fund Vice President of Delivery System Reform Laurie Zephyrin, MD, explained that today’s leaders can continue Ginsburg’s legacy by working to achieve equity, which takes equality a step further by enabling people with the care resources they need, as opposed to simply granting everyone the same services regardless of actual need. 

“This is a challenging time in our society,” Zephyrin said. “The need for justice and equity is ever more apparent.”  

Indeed, Ginsburg’s death during concurrent pandemic and economic crises, amid a tumultuous election season and ongoing civil injustice, increases the importance of understanding what can be learned from her and how those lessons can be applied to shaping a more equitable future.  

“Given what’s happening all around us now,” said Margo GeorgiadisPresident & CEO, Ancestry, “her legacy is a reminder of what is expected of leaders from across the country to make positive lasting change for all.”  

Leadership requires heart, resilience, grit, integrity  
Industry leaders can learn a considerable amount from Ginsburg about authenticity, courage, leadership, as well as remaining gracious and generous in the face of daunting obstacles.  

Georgiadis, for instance, pointed to Ginsburg’s selfless service to country, overcoming adversity and ability to drive lasting change by taking the long-term view as lessons that can guide health care CEOs and others.  

“She helped shape the legal framework to continue our pursuit of an equal society regardless of gender, national origin, sexual orientation or religious beliefs,” Georgiadis said. “And she achieved this impact while maintaining relationships with those on all sides of any debate.”   

Carilion Clinic President & CEO Nancy Agee recounted having dinner with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor during which she was struck by her delightful storytelling and sense of humor as well as the wide road she paved for women. “Ruth Bader Ginsberg, surely different in many ways, seemed identical in the ways a strong leader (read: woman) gets ahead … smart, gritty, assertive, clear headed and focused, taking her work seriously yet herself with a dose of humor,” Agee said. “RBG galvanized a generation of women to be confident and strong.”  

After Sandra Day O’Connor left the court, Ginsburg spoke of being isolated and how she often felt she was speaking for her entire gender, added Denise Gonick, former President & CEOMVP Health.  

“This is obviously untenable,” Gonick said. “Yet today, in 2020, I still enter many rooms, including board rooms, where I am the only woman.”  

Gonick, of course, is not alone among women in top leadership positions who routinely find themselves in similar situations. That said, Ginsburg’s life, opinions and dissents opened previously unimagined opportunities for women, the disabled and other oppressed groups, said Kim Keck, President and CEO, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island 

“I will always be inspired by her courage and insistence on pushing ahead despite personal and professional obstacles, and by her gracious, generous nature,” Keck added 

As much as Ginsburg’s impact improved conditions for her generation, Janice Nevin, MD, President & CEO, ChristianaCare, said it’s been even more influential for those that have followed.  

“My 20-something daughters don’t remember a time when women couldn’t open a bank account or earn equal pay and full benefits. Even so, they know RBG, revere her, appreciate her and are inspired by her example. Because of her, they know that women should not only have a seat at the table when decisions are made, but belong at the head of the table,” Nevin said. “They know that leadership takes heart, resilience, grit, consistency and integrity to create sustainable change.”   

Continuing the legacy of equity  
Today’s industry leaders, women and men, have a responsibility to drive impactful improvements in diversifying the workforce — including the C-suite and board of directors. They also must lead future generations toward greater equity in professional and personal lives by including a wider range of voices in executive level decision making and creating conditions within which women are supported for success.  

“It was 47 years ago that she enabled 9 male justices to see gender discrimination. She did it by choosing cases that put them in positions that did not have power. There is great wisdom there that can serve us well as we confront the system-wide change we want to make in health care,” Gonick said. “For her legacy to be fully realized, we need to reclaim our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others. This is unfinished work.”  

Agreeing that much work in fighting for human and women’s rights remains, Nevin said that diversity in leadership is not just the right thing to do for equality’s sake, but it is essential for decision making that creates a more just, progressive and equitable society.  

“Data shows that in C-suite roles and in senior executive positions, we still have a great deal of work to do as women, for women. We know that when leadership teams are diverse, organizations have better financial results,” said Cheryl Pegus, MD, President, Consumer Health Solutions and Chief Medical Officer, Regence, Cambia Health Solutions. “In health care, this is critical as strategic decisions on investments, new therapies, treatments and digital solutions must account for the end user – people and their families. To minimize bias, we must include all groups in development, execution and outcomes analysis.”  

Keck added that CEOs in every industry have the responsibility to take a leading role in ensuring that the nation does not revert back to the days when expectations of and about what women are capable of accomplishing were prohibitively low. Despite the progress that has been made since those days, thanks to Justice Ginsburg and other strong leaders, CEOs said they need to remain steadfast in pursuing equity.  

“To have equal representation in the C-suite, women need equal conditions for success. That means more support for working families including achieving equal pay, paid family leave, and access to affordable childcare,” said Rebekah Gee, MD, CEO of Health Care Services for LSU Health. “Unless and until we have systematic policies that support women in their roles as professionals and caregivers we will not achieve gender equality in the workplace.” 

While health care as an industry has its own challenges, that reality is as true in other industries as well.  

“In society and in business, women must be intentional about their efforts to support other women and provide a ‘hand up’ for the next generation,” Boudreaux said. “I encourage each one of us to think about what we can do in our own lives to create the enduring change we need. Only then can we know a truly equitable world.” 

Ginsburg catalyzed significant societal improvements in her work and life including establishing foundations for more women leaders in the world.  

As we lose icons this year who have championed equityI am heartened to see that new icons and leaders in this space are flourishing,” Zephyrin said. “Advancing health equity is an active process and leadership mattersHealth care leaders can be forces for equity in their communities, advance equity within their leadership teams and build trust and partnerships with the people they serve. 

About the Author

Tom Sullivan, EVP & Editor-in-Chief of Digital Content

Tom Sullivan brings more than two decades in editing and journalism experience to Health Evolution. Sullivan most recently served as Editor-in-Chief at HIMSS, leading Healthcare IT News, Health Finance, MobiHealthNews. Prior to HIMSS Media, Sullivan was News Editor of IDG’s InfoWorld, directing a dozen reporters’ coverage for the weekly print publication and daily website.