Healthcare is Female Friendly, Just Not in Leadership

At first glance, knowing that three out of every four employees at U.S. health care companies are women–a very high ratio compared to most industries–should make those employers proud.

But if you dig under that gaudy figure, it’s more of the same ol’ prescription when it comes to leadership roles for women.

And that’s what the global management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group did. According to a new BCG report, Women Dominate Health Care–Just Not in the Executive Suite, among the 50 biggest payers, medtech manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies and providers (200 employers in all), only 19 CEOs are women, including just one in medtech.

That number is especially ironic considering that healthcare companies clearly have a wide open pipeline of talented women for potential leadership positions. Yet, the numbers says few women make it to the top. For large employers, the BCG survey found, the numbers make no sense.

“Those numbers are abysmal,” says Michelle Russell, a senior partner at BCG and co-author of the report. “Healthcare companies should be better positioned to create gender-balanced leadership teams. They already have the talent in-house–the challenge is for them to capitalize on it.”  

BCG’s report points to primary causes for the disparity. One, women in healthcare typically work in administrative functions (HR, marketing, risk, and legal) along with nursing. Men, on the other hand, more than likely manage operational units that give them profit-and-loss responsibilities. That, in turn, gives them an advantage in getting to the executive suite. Two, women still have the bulk of child-care responsibilities. Until employers reliably offer flexible work scenarios and similar work/life balance options to help new parents, women are more likely to step off the career path when children arrive.

Matt Krentz, a senior partner at BCG and report co-author, explains that clearing a path for more women to advance into leadership roles is more than just a fairness issue; it can yield real benefits. Previous BCG research, in fact, found that diverse leadership teams perform better: Their organizations are more innovative and generate higher financial returns. In a volatile healthcare environment, that kind of fresh thinking can give companies an edge.

“Healthcare is facing major disruptions from new payment models, digital and e-health, and greater patient involvement in their own care,” Krentz says. “Companies need innovative solutions to compete, but they won’t be able to come up with those ideas if everyone on the leadership team looks the same.”

The report identified six ways to put women on an equal footing with men:

  • Highlight senior women as role models;
  • Offer sponsorship programs for high-potential women;
  • Standardize performance reviews and promotion decisions on the basis of hard metrics;
  • Hire and promote talent from unconventional sources;
  • Provide flexible work arrangements; and
  • Measure what matters.

In addition, the report offers insights from senior women at top healthcare organizations, including New York-Presbyterian, Health Care Service Corp., the Henry Ford Health System, CVS Health, the Mayo Clinic and Northwestern Memorial HealthCare.

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at