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Healthcare needs more women leaders, and fewer Mini-Me’s


Donna Grande, CEO of the American College of Preventive Medicine, talked with us about getting more women in the C-suite, how men can help, and why women must be bold.

At a meeting of healthcare leaders in New York City, Donna Grande looked around the room.

Image: ACPM

Donna Grande, CEO of the American College of Preventive Medicine, wants to see more women in healthcare leadership roles. (Image: ACPM)

Grande, the CEO of the American College of Preventive Medicine, said there were about 80 healthcare and pharmaceutical leaders in the meeting, and she was one of perhaps five women in the room. During breaks in the meeting, she’d watch male leaders gather together, some chatting with younger men.

In this male-heavy meeting, the discussion turned to gender equity in healthcare leadership. Grande decided to speak up.

“Watching and observing the transactions at the breaks, and really looking at and meeting people that were introducing me to their colleagues and or their mentees, I said, ‘People need to stop hiring Mini-Me’s,’” Grande said.

“And that's what happens in a man's world, is that there are a lot of men that will hire men that either look like them, act like them or that reflect them. Whether it's an egocentric aspect that they want to train up their successor to be just like them or not, I don't know.”

Grande talked with Chief Healthcare Executive® about the importance of having more women in leadership roles. She discussed some of the obstacles women face and the steps women can take to help improve their chances of moving into executive positions.

“When you get a group of women together and you empower them for change, it's pretty powerful,” she says.

Grande also talked about what the healthcare industry should do to improve gender equity in the C-suite. And she said getting men to be allies in that effort is an important step.

“Men need to reflect and look around the table and say, you know what, whether it's white men around the table or just gender inequities around the table, we need to do better, and we can do better as a group and as a team of leaders,” Grande says.

‘Very different perspective’

While more women are moving into leadership positions in hospitals and the healthcare industry, men hold the bulk of the positions in the C-suite.

“Women have so much to offer, and such an incredible perspective that they bring to the mix, regardless of their training and experience and knowledge and education and the whole nine yards,” Grande says. “I think there is also a very different perspective that women bring.”

Only 15% of all CEOs in health systems are women, while women hold about 16% of the CEO positions in health insurance groups, according to a November 2021 analysis published by Jama Network Open. “That's a pretty sad commentary,” she says.

Women regularly have to surmount more obstacles on the path to leadership roles for a host of reasons, Grande says.

Many women with children bear the brunt of family responsibilities. During the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she noted that women typically were the ones who had to either reduce their hours or step back in their careers when schools were only offering classes virtually.

Women physicians were more likely to cut their hours or work from home, and suffered more career setbacks during the pandemic, according to a 2021 study by Jama Network Open. Grande said some of her colleagues at the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association shared such stories.

“In the pandemic, the women ended up stepping out of their roles and out of their positions and quitting their jobs to be home to be there, for the children,” Grande says. “And so their career had to be derailed a little bit.”

Many women also face the challenge of being part of the “sandwich generation,” where they are simultaneously raising children and taking care of aging parents.

“Careers can be derailed because of additional choices that women make,” she says. “And that shouldn't be the case.”

Through enormous effort, some women have managed those family responsibilities and earned significant leadership roles, Grande says. But it’s a difficult road.

“It does not come easy,” she says. “Tenacity, resilience, there's a whole host of assets that women need to bring to the game that are far different than men to the same game.”

Healthcare organizations can help retain talented women by offering more flexible scheduling options, Grande says. Some organizations are having women essentially share jobs, enabling some women to keep working part-time rather than having to step away entirely.

Going for bigger roles

Some women shy away from pursuing promotions into leadership roles because they worry that they aren’t ready, even if they may be well qualified, female healthcare leaders say.

Women sometimes hesitate to go for positions because they may lack one or two qualities that are being sought for the role, and begin to second-guess themselves, Grande says. She says men typically don’t think that way. Men will go for those posts, even if they have just a few of the qualities for the job and are lacking most of the desired attributes.

“This is my perspective, that women climbing the corporate ladder, we all want to be perfect,” Grande says. “We all want to be able to be the best we can be in all aspects.”

When women choose not to go for those jobs because they’re missing a couple desired attributes, Grande says it’s not always a lack of belief in themselves.

“That doesn't have to do with confidence,” she says. “It's more about honesty, integrity and wanting to meet all the requirements for this job.”

Grande offers some advice for women who are interested in pursuing leadership positions.

“More than anything, be bold,” Grande says. “Be confident and recognize the gifts and talents you have to step into those leadership roles. Let's lean into those opportunities and lean into who you are. Don't be dissuaded.”

Women should look at some roles that involve finances and managing budgets, because they can be important skills sought in CEOs and other top leadership posts. Grande also recalls the advice of an early mentor, who said, “If you can write well, you can have any job in the world.”

“It's about articulating and communicating effectively,” she says. “So that is really important.”

She also stresses the importance of networking, which she says can be a little more challenging for women, since men hold so many of the C-suite jobs.

“Do your homework and think about who you know that could actually put in a good word for you,” Grande says. “Network like hell.”

“There’s a lot of women's groups that really help and offer a place and a space of camaraderie,” she adds. “And yet you also have to network with men's groups as well, and go to the places where men are also meeting, so that you can go up and be a part of that. Just get to know the people that are in positions of power, that can open up doors for you.”

Grande points to opportunities in preventive medicine, which she says offers the chance to make a tangible difference in public health while still allowing some work-life balance.

“They have an opportunity to step into a number of different careers that truly focus on improving population health and outcomes,” Grande says.

“It's very encouraging that there are so many women that are choosing preventive medicine because they can have that duality of career, they can have kids and they can actually have a career as well.”

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