Women now represent 20 percent of healthcare leaders. But as they rise through the ranks toward CEO, this number shrinks to only 4 percent. This creates a serious blind spot within our industry: women are not only a significant patient population but are also, in most cases, responsible for the healthcare decisions of their families.
Why do so few women climb the healthcare leadership ladder? The answers are probably different for everyone. Some factors you can’t do anything about, but many are within your full control.
We want to share some tips from our own leadership journeys to not only encourage you, but to also help you climb even higher and faster (and avoid our mistakes too).
So, how do you start climbing and how do you stay on track?
1. Step Onto the Ladder
It sounds obvious, but to climb the leadership ladder, you need to step onto the first rung.
You can’t just hang around waiting for greater responsibility. Find ways to contribute that highlight your strengths and passions. Seek a leadership role, and if you get it, take it.
“Sometimes you get lucky and someone taps you on the shoulder and asks you to lead. But if not, you just have to go for it.”
— Cyndy Flores, PA-C
For one of us, taking the first leadership step involved joining and then chairing Vituity’s New Partner Committee. For the other, it involved saying yes to a California Academy of Physician Assistants board meeting.
2. Seek Out Mentors
Mentors are powerful and important, so don’t wait for them to come to you. Actively cultivate relationships with people you admire.
“There were two women in Vituity who commanded a lot of respect. I wondered what they had done to get them to that point. So I reached out to both of them and asked which actions had been most helpful in developing their careers. That’s how it all started.”
If possible, have multiple mentors. Different mentoring styles balance one another. Some days you need a cheerleader. Other days you need someone to challenge you.
You can have mentors in different areas like leadership, technology, public speaking, organization, or work-life balance. Many people have skills and experiences that make them an expert and are willing to help others by offering advice.
3. Take Risks
Similar to our first tip about taking advantage of available leadership opportunities, we recommend taking risks — those that may scare you, either in their scope or unfamiliarity, but that can bring significant rewards.
When she had been with Vituity for just a few years, Janet moved from California to Chicago to serve as medical director of Vituity’s first Midwest practice. It was a risk for her and her family. But she also realized it might be a stepping stone to bigger, better things. And it was.
“If you’re hesitant to make the leap, remember that nothing is forever. Some people try leadership and decide it’s not for them. But for others, it completely changes their life and practice for the better. So don’t be afraid to take a chance.”
— Janet Young, MD
4. Solicit Feedback
Leadership development is all about amplifying your strengths and negating your weaknesses. But first, you need to know what both are. Get in the habit of asking mentors, supervisors, and colleagues specific questions about your performance.
As difficult as it is to be evaluated and feel dissected, the benefits are huge. Leaders who ask for feedback are substantially more effective than leaders who don’t.
“Getting emotional was one of my big challenges when I was starting out. So I actually took a class about controlling emotions, and it’s really helped me to accept feedback and grow from it.”
5. Ask for What You Want
What will help you climb the leadership ladder? A raise? Training? More responsibilities? Think about the inherent value you bring to your organization and what you want and need to help you succeed. It helps if you write out and quantify this where possible.
Women often don’t think of asking for more pay or ancillary benefits. They wait to be offered a salary increase or a promotion. Don’t wait to be assigned the project, team, or job you want.
“I used to supervise nine medical directors: five women and four men. Three of the four men asked for a raise at some point. But not a single woman asked about compensation unless I brought it up first. No matter who you are, never be afraid to ask for what you’re worth.”
6. Treat Failure Like a Bruise, Not a Scar
No one likes to fail. But if you’re going to be a leader, occasional failures are inevitable.
Studies have found that women are more likely to hold themselves to a higher standard and be discouraged by setbacks.
“Women are so concerned about doing something wrong and making a mistake when they’re in a leadership role. I wish they could see some of the moves I’ve made over the years, and I’m still here.”
Confronting your failures is one of the fastest ways to grow.
7. Keep Your Balance
Invest in areas of your life outside of your job. You can start by looking at the basics. Make sure you eat right and sleep seven to nine hours a day. Commit to a weekly exercise program. From there you can take stock of other areas of your life. Set aside time for your relationships, involvement in the community, and “me time.”
When you’re balanced by having multiple things in your life you enjoy or take pride in, you feel more resilient. It’s easier to keep work setbacks and failures in perspective.
“Sometimes taking on an administrative leadership role can be a form of balance in itself. What we see day-to-day in clinical practice is incredibly humbling. We deal with people when they’re at their worst, at their sickest. An administrative role allows you to step back and contribute in a different way.”
8. And Finally, Be You
Don’t feel you have to change in order to be a leader. Don’t feel you have to become perfect. The best leaders come from a place of authenticity.
“I was practicing my leadership presentation for our women’s forum at home. My nine-year-old daughter could see I was getting nervous and stressed over it. She said, ‘Mom, nobody should be afraid of just being themselves’ Which made me laugh, because it was so spot-on.”
Climbing the leadership ladder isn’t always easy. Being a leader takes focus, dedication, and self-awareness. But if you’re a woman who’s interested in making change, the healthcare industry needs you.
It may be scary to take that first step, but you and those around you will be all the better for it. So take that step. We believe in you and look forward to all your future accomplishments.