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Breaking barriers: Advancing gender equality in healthcare leadership | Viewpoint


There is an alarming drop-off between female representation in healthcare in the early stages of their career versus successive leadership levels.

Women account for more than 70% of the global healthcare workforce, yet only 25% of healthcare leadership positions in the United States and Canada combined are held by women.

Image credit: American College of Preventive Medicine

A crucial issue that deserves greater attention is the lack of gender equality in the boardroom and executive seats of healthcare organizations, Donna Grande writes.

In today's rapidly evolving healthcare landscape, we often discuss various challenges and shortcomings of the system, but one crucial issue that deserves greater attention is the lack of gender equality in the boardroom and executive seats of healthcare organizations. These numbers are disappointing, yet not surprising to me based on what I’ve observed throughout my career.

There are real differences between women in the C-suite functions in healthcare versus women in supportive roles across the healthcare ecosystem. There is an alarming drop-off between female representation in healthcare in the early stages of their career versus successive leadership levels, specifically gender discrimination against female healthcare providers (HCPs).

Women healthcare providers face inherent discrimination and are largely underrepresented in leadership roles and gender discrimination in the workplace is far too common, including sexual harassment, inequitable compensation, diminished career advancement opportunities, and the underrepresentation of female physicians in the C-suite of academic institutions, hospitals, and the boardroom. This glaring gender disparity not only hinders diversity but also affects the quality and inclusivity of our healthcare system.

As a female leader, I have had the fortune of finding a supportive community of women in professional associations such as the Healthcare Businesswoman’s Association (HBA) and the Women Business Leaders of the U.S. Healthcare Industry (WBL). These networks have provided a platform to share strategies, offer encouragement, and challenge the status quo, propelling us toward a more diverse and inclusive healthcare landscape. For example, members of HBA have joined together as a force for change to influence key decision-makers across the healthcare ecosystem to become sponsors, allies, or mentors to enable diversity through the ranks of career advancement. Members of WBL encourage and offer opportunities through sharing job descriptions and career advice to those in the C-suite or serving on Boards.

In my current role at the American College of Preventive Medicine (ACPM), I am inspired by the leadership and opportunities available for physicians to drive real and lasting change as part of an organization that empowers physicians equally, going the extra mile to elevate women and physicians of color. As a female leader, I am passionate about advancing opportunities for women in healthcare and empowering them to make meaningful contributions.

When tapping members for specific roles or speaking opportunities, we consider the audience and tap members appropriately. Women are known as the key decision-makers for the health of a family, and so, tapping our female leaders as spokespersons becomes important for advancing many of our campaign messages. For example, Dr. Chris Pernell, one of the early ambassadors of our Vaccine Confident campaign, was the perfect spokesperson to resonate with both women as well as the Black community through her narrative and experiences that reached an audience most in need.

Not only are we empowering women across the ACPM membership and among our staff, we also strive to address biases and create a more inclusive healthcare landscape, particularly across a wide spectrum of social disparities.

Take the growing disparities of diabetes and prediabetes in this nation. Women have higher rates of diabetes, then when you go deeper into the data by ethnicity and race, the numbers become much higher for historically marginalized populations. ACPM taps female physicians who are doing incredible work in addressing disparities, health inequities in general, and then specifically chronic conditions such as diabetes.

Preventive medicine physicians operate at the crossroads of public health and clinical care, shaping all aspects of our nation's health and healthcare system. Their expertise, rooted in a deep understanding of population health and a commitment to addressing health disparities, equips them to bridge the equity divide. They possess the capacity to drive essential initiatives within the healthcare systems and institutions, leveraging their knowledge and strategic vision to champion impactful changes. This influence extends to hospitals, health clinics, corporate boardrooms, and the halls of government, allowing preventive medicine physicians to advance the agenda of health and wellness at a broader societal level.

From initiatives that reduce stigma around HIV/AIDS to programs that tackle misconceptions and fears surrounding vaccines, our diverse members are dedicated to improving health outcomes for patients, communities, and entire populations. Witnessing our members, especially our junior members, utilize their careers to create pathways for transformative change is incredibly rewarding.

We are united in our mission to effect positive change and enable everyone to achieve optimal health. The expertise and perspective of preventive medicine physicians make them indispensable leaders in all healthcare settings, and it’s our firm belief that placing physicians of their background in leadership roles could substantially help close the gender gap.

As we reflect on the urgent need for gender equality across the healthcare ecosystem, I urge healthcare executives, leaders, and stakeholders to take action. Give preventive medicine physicians a seat at the table in conversations around gender equality in your institution. Proactively work to fill leadership roles with female physicians poised to take on the next challenge. Diversify your leadership pipeline with individuals who bring fresh, unique, perspectives to the table.

Gender equality is not just a moral imperative; it's a crucial driver of better health outcomes and will make a stronger healthcare system. ACPM stands at the forefront of this effort, and we invite you to stand with us. Together, we can create a more equitable and inclusive healthcare system that benefits us all.

Donna Grande is CEO of the American College of Preventive Medicine.

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