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Why women should pursue leadership roles, and why they might need a push

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More women are rising the ranks, and female leaders say it’s important to encourage more women to apply for management positions.

Female executives talk about the importance of encouraging women to pursue leadership roles in healthcare during a panel at the American Hospital Association Leadership Summit. (Photo: Ron Southwick)

Female executives talk about the importance of encouraging women to pursue leadership roles in healthcare during a panel at the American Hospital Association Leadership Summit. (Photo: Ron Southwick)

Seattle - Dana Weston Graves turned to baking to explain the differences in how women and men pursue leadership roles.

Graves, the president of Sentara Princess Anne Hospital in Virginia Beach, Va., noted that a woman might be very meticulous in baking a pie. She’ll make sure she has all the ingredients, measures them carefully and will closely follow the instructions in baking the pie. Conversely, a guy may or may not have the ingredients but will still mix them up and give it his best shot.

Speaking generally, Graves said men take a similar approach in going after leadership and executive positions, and they won’t worry if they are lacking some of the skills the position requires. Meanwhile, women may be reluctant to apply for leadership posts, even if they are very qualified.

“If the job profile says that these are the five requirements for the role, women are not applying for them because you don't think you have all five of them perfectly,” Graves said.

She made the analogy during a session on women leadership in healthcare, which was one of the most passionate discussions at the American Hospital Association Leadership Summit. She and other female leaders talked about the need to get more women into healthcare leadership roles.

After making the baking analogy, Graves offered her own recipe for women thinking about going for leadership posts.

“Apply. Apply for the leadership roles, apply for the stretch roles,” she says. “I have one main rule in life and that is: Make somebody else tell me ‘No.’ I’m not the person telling myself ‘No.’”

Even though women hold most of the jobs in healthcare, men dominate the leadership ranks. Only 15% of healthcare organizations are led by women, according to an analysis published by Jama Network Open in November 2021 (the study included health systems with at least 5 hospitals and insurance organizations).

Graves talked about the importance of having women in the C-suite.

“There are going to be things from our lived experiences, as you said, from our vantage point, from our place in society, that we know, that are going to cause us to ask different questions, that are going to cause us to prioritize different strategies,” she said.

Jandel Allen-Davis, president and CEO of Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado, says promoting more capable women into leadership roles will encourage others to apply.

“It shows what’s possible,” she said.

The panelists said that many struggle with imposter syndrome, including women who have accomplished a great deal and have risen the ranks of healthcare organizations.

“I would add that not only is imposter syndrome real, but have I ever experienced it? I think it was this morning,” Allen-Davis said, drawing some laughter.

She made the case for being open about imposter syndrome with teams, so others feel comfortable in sharing their struggles. Such vulnerability can also help teams acknowledge what they don’t know, which she said is especially valuable as a clinician. In acknowledging gaps, it’s then possible to collaborate and figure out how to solve a problem, she said.

“We all have things that we're constantly having to learn,” Allen-Davis said. “In fact, I kind of think it's not a very good day if I didn't learn something new.”

Graves, the mother of two toddlers, said family responsibilities can also lead to feelings of imposter syndrome. She shared the relief that came with potty training her 3-year-old, and pushing aside the feeling of, “I'm the worst mother in the world.”

She also encouraged women to pursue leadership positions even if they are raising kids.

“You can absolutely do both,” Graves said. “There is some woman in here who thinks that she cannot take the next leadership role, because how in the world will you make it work with your family? You’ll figure it out. You'll drop balls in both places and guess what? They just say, ‘Don't drop the glass ones.’ I drop balls all day, every day. I just drop the rubber ones.”

But Graves also says healthcare leaders have a role to play, and they need to identify women with leadership potential and encourage them to apply.

“When you are in a leadership position and you have the senior leader role open, you have to go get women. You cannot wait and let them naturally apply to the role. You have to seek them out. If there's a young woman that you know has potential, you have to affirm leadership in these young women coming up and say, ‘I think you should apply for that role.’”

“Women are more likely to apply for leadership roles after they have had their leadership affirmed by someone else,” she added.

The panelists encouraged the hospital leaders in the audience to help support women with leadership potential.

“I also ask for each and every one of us to affirm leadership in other women,” Graves said. “Support other women in applying for stretch positions. For the men in the room, that is one of the best roles that you can play. When there is a leadership role open, affirm leadership in a woman that you know is qualified for that role, because she may be telling herself that she's not qualified.”

Read more: How women can improve their chances of becoming a CEO

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