Gender disparities in leadership: What health care CEOs are doing to turn the tide

Gabriel Perna | December 16, 2019

Key Takeaway:
*Even in female-dominated specialties, men far outnumber women in leadership roles.

*Experts say modifications to organizational structures need to be made to support real change.

*CEOs need to make sure they are surrounding themselves with a diverse array of perspectives.

*Change management begins by looking at the C-suite and the board of directors.

When it comes to women reaching leadership roles in health care, the data doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

Researchers at the Center for Policy and Research in Emergency Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University examined potential gender bias in leadership among emergency medicine and OB/GYN residency programs. With 1,634 residents in those areas completing the researchers’ survey, they found there is implicit bias towards as men as leaders in these programs.

“We picked a residency — in OB/GYN about 86 percent of residents are female and in ED, the majority are male — we intentionally picked two specialties that have different demographics. And even in OB/GYN where the majority of residents are female, there was a bias toward male leaders,” says Jeanne-Marie Guise, Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at OHSU. “Sixty-one percent of males thought their gender was a benefit as leaders and only 7 percent of females thought the same. More than half of women thought their gender was harmful.”

Other research, from executive search firm Korn Ferry, found similar disparities. More than half (55%) of nearly 200 hospital and health system executives said women in their organizations have been overlooked due to gender. More than three-fourths do not have sponsorship programs to help women rise in the leadership ranks.

Why gender inequity persists

Carol Horowitz, MD, who is the founding Dean for Gender Equity in Science and Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, the first person to take on this role at a medical school, has been through this struggle firsthand.

“When I was in training, I had some really horrendous experiences. I did my best to do something about it … but it didn’t make significant changes for my life as a trainee or my life around me,” Horowitz says. “In some ways, because women didn’t have as much power and much say in institutions over time, it was just hard to make significant changes.”

Horowitz says organizational efforts need to be in place for real changes to be made. At Mount Sinai, not only did leadership appoint her as the first-ever Dean for Gender Equity at a medical school, but the organization launched a racism and bias initiative, put together a gender equity accelerator, joined TIME’S UP Healthcare and initiated other strategies to change its culture.

Horowitz explains the creation of her role was something that Mount Sinai thought was necessary to give the issue prominence within the organization. “As we were looking around the institution, [the Dean of the Medical School] felt that elevating the work to the position of a Dean and having a Dean’s office focused on this would mean we had real attention, real resources backing it to understand our culture better and make significant changes at a greater pace than we had been doing,” Horowitz says.

[Read more:  Fresh Perspectives from Outside the Health Care Bubble ]

These moves come at a time when Mount Sinai is under intense scrutiny for how it treats women. In October, an article in New York Magazine took a critical look at the organization’s culture with regards to gender, age, and race discrimination and included an article about a patient who was molested by an ED doctor at the hospital. Mount Sinai insists the incident was one rogue actor that was immediately fired and also says it has put programs in place to empower women.

Mentoring future leaders

At Sinai Health System in Chicago, Karen Teitelbaum is making waves in promoting gender diversity in leadership roles. She says that 68 percent of managers and 66 percent of senior leadership at the health system are female. “When we look at hiring, when we look at diversity, I think we’ve done very well,” she adds.

Perhaps this is because Teitelbaum’s own career trajectory has been by her own accord, “non-linear and non-traditional.” A variety of bosses and mentors have helped her succeed. That’s why she serves as a mentor to women through the Essential Women’s Leadership Academy.

The academy was set up by the America’s Essential Hospitals organization on the basis of the incredible gender disparity in health care with the number of women working in the industry (80 percent, according to the Korn Ferry survey) vs. the number of women who are leaders (20 percent). The 10-month program, which has been around for six years, aims to help its hospital members close that gap by empowering women executives.

“This problem has been in place for a very long time. Many of our hospitals are working to close that gap with internal policies … but what hasn’t existed is a network of women leaders in essential hospitals who could be a cohort and learn from one another and get mentorship from other women leaders. This is about getting a mentorship from another essential hospital woman CEO and creating a cohort of women leaders who can band together,” says Kalpana Ramiah, Vice President of Innovation and Director of Essential Hospitals Institute, the research arm of America’s Essential Hospitals.

Not only did Teitelbaum become involved with this institute because she wanted to give back after having mentors of her own, but she also says the skills needed for leadership rarely get taught to women. She wanted to help change that.

“People get mentored on technical skills, but people don’t always talk to women early in their careers about those softer skills. They don’t talk to them about the politics. Everyone feels uncomfortable about money and advocating for themselves. They don’t talk about running a meeting. These aren’t technical skills, but they are important leadership skills,” Teitelbaum says. “Women in particular are not as conditioned to step into leadership as readily or as confidently as men might.”

I really feel that to move the needle, it has to be a very deliberate effort. Hand-to-hand combat. Organization to organization. Even sitting around some board tables, there are still very few women.

Karen Teitelbaum, Sinai Health System

A look into the life sciences and payer side

On the payer side, Gail Boudreaux, CEO of Anthem, is a big advocate of mentoring because she says the connections made in those relationships allow for honest conversations. Boudreaux said at last April’s Health Evolution Summit Confab of Women ChangeMakers event that even though Anthem is one of the few Fortune 50 companies that has a female CEO and a female chairman of the board, they are seeking to do more.

“Right now, 40 percent of our board is female. The goal would be ultimately to get to 50 percent because we’re quite frankly a business and an industry that serves—we mostly have women employees and serve women as our constituents as well– and we don’t really mirror our communities yet,” Boudreaux said at the event.

When it comes to gender equity, Boudreaux said the company looks at the pay gap. She says the pay gap almost directly correlates to a level gap in companies, with the types of jobs that are being done by women and men.

“I would say we look at equal pay in like populations, but you have to also look at levels. As I look at my organization, we look at how many women are in our workforce, and first-line management, and second-line management, and leadership, and just, keep an eye on that and how that’s progressing over time,” she says.

[The 2020 Confab is on March 31, 2020 – Apply To Attend Here]

Ramona Sequeira, President of Takeda Pharmaceuticals U.S.A., says without hesitation that when it comes to gender equity in leadership roles, the pharmaceutical industry is doing “pretty bad.”

“I think the numbers would tell you that,” Sequeira says. “I sit on the board of [Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America] and many times I’m the only female leader in the room. There is one other female – there’s two of us – but not all of us can make every meeting. Many times, I sit around that table and there won’t be another woman. Pharma has been slow to move. I don’t know why … but we have been.”

At Takeda, Sequeira is trying to turn the tide and has put a lot of effort into creating an environment where women as well as diverse employees can feel empowered. Half of her business unit leaders are female and the company lives by a “Curious, Courageous, Connected” motto that drives its diversity and inclusion program. Takeda won Scrip’s 2019 Pharma Company of the Year recognition in part because of its diversity and inclusion efforts at the highest levels.

One program that Sequeira finds effective at Takeda is a resource group that encourages women, different minorities, veterans and LGBT employees to come together on a regular basis to discuss issues within the workplace and the business at large.

“Allowing those groups to thrive and create momentum and help each other is important, but also what’s important is having executive sponsorship,” she says. “It’s not an HR thing … it’s being sponsored by people on my leadership team of those groups that represent them at the [executive] table as well.”

First steps to getting started

First and foremost, Sequeira says that leaders looking to improve their own gender and diversity leadership programs need to ensure their teams have different perspectives at the table. In other words, start at the top of the organization.

“The place you start as a CEO is with yourself and the people you surround yourself with. It’s not just gender, although gender is part of it. Are you surrounding yourself with people who are very different from you? Are you comfortable hiring and bringing in people who have different ways of looking at the world than you do?” she asks. “You have to look around your boardroom and your executive table and make sure you are doing that. If you aren’t doing that, all the metrics in the world won’t make a difference.”

Teitelbaum adds that the female CEOs probably don’t need her advice on how to create more gender equity in leadership roles. For the male CEOs, however, she says they may have to make a very deliberate effort to identify high-performing women. She encourages them to set goals around the number of women and diverse leaders in their organizations.

“I really feel that to move the needle, it has to be a very deliberate effort. Hand-to-hand combat. Organization to organization. Even sitting around some board tables, there are still very few women,” Teitelbaum says. “It’s incumbent upon us to move the needle on gender and diversity and race.”

About the Author

Gabriel Perna, Senior Manager, Digital Content

Gabriel Perna is the Senior Manager of Digital Content at Health Evolution. He brings 10+ years of experience in covering the intersection of health care and business. Previously, he was at Chief Executive, Physicians Practice and Healthcare Informatics. You can reach him via email at or on Twitter at @GabrielSPerna