Health Care Leadership and Women: A Call to Break the Glass Ceiling

Health Care Leadership and Women: A Call to Break the Glass Ceiling

By Patrice Wolfe

“I have trouble getting traction for my ideas.”

“Being a working mother has hindered my professional advancement.”

“My male colleagues have P&L responsibilities, but I don’t.”

“When I look at my company’s leadership, it doesn’t reflect people who look or think like me.”

If you’ve ever found yourself thinking or speaking these words, you are not alone. Women across all industries have shared stories of challenges they have experienced trying to secure—and then grow from—an executive-level position. You don’t need to look far to identify that even healthcare, a female-dominated industry, has the same problem: a lack of women in leadership roles.

Women in Health Care Leadership – A Look at the Data

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports nearly 80 percent of the healthcare workforce is made up of women. Yet Korn Ferry’s report “Women CEOs: The path forward in healthcare” concluded that fewer than 20 percent of women hold key leadership roles in hospitals, and only 4 percent of healthcare companies have a female CEO. I am one of the 4 percent, and I’m calling on my male and female colleagues: The time has come to break the glass ceiling.

When you dive deeper into the data, I think you’ll agree that it’s discouraging. In the US, it takes 30 percent longer to place a woman at the helm of a company than it does a man. Women hold only 19 percent of board seats in S&P 500 companies and 22 percent of board seats in Fortune 500 companies. According to the Advisory Board, of those considered most influential in healthcare, only 21 percent are women. Why are there so few female leaders when 80 percent of the healthcare workforce is made up of women?

In my experience, organizations thrive when leadership is diverse and inclusive. However, creating an environment of diversity and inclusion requires we understand where the challenges are on the path to executive leadership, remove barriers, and provide resources and encouragement for women to advance. The diversity of thought and experience that women bring to executive leadership is priceless.

Helping women excel professionally is something I am passionate about. To do that requires that I understand where the obstacles are—real and perceived. When asked about the most significant obstacles to female leadership, it’s not surprising that men and women hold different opinions. According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of women polled (52 percent) say a major reason women are not in leadership positions is that women are held to higher standards and have to do more to prove themselves; only one-third of men share this view. While that’s mere perception, the facts better define the challenges women face.


A major challenge for women begins as we explore career advancement, because we often strive to be perfect and feel we need to meet all of the criteria on a job description before applying. Men, on the other hand, often feel more comfortable applying for jobs when they meet only 60% of the qualifications. And women are more prone to second-guessing our abilities. I’ve witnessed this throughout my career. Second-guessing job qualifications could be attributed to women not being given the same level of exposure as men to critical business functions.

To be successful in business, one must:

  • Know the strategy: Understand where the business is headed over the next three to five years and why.
  • Know the numbers: Understand the organization’s financial performance, including historical trends and projections.
  • Know the operations: Understand how the company translates strategy into action—implementation and measurement.

Advancement in business, especially into leadership roles, is facilitated by several factors, including:

  • Opportunities to network and grow: Women are often absent from critical conversations and networking interactions and miss exposure to higher-level decision-making.
  • A chance to prove oneself to peers and higher-ups: Women may be more reluctant to speak up to take on a major project or simply aren’t heard when they do speak up.
  • Supportive partner/family/friends: Women are more apt to worry about work-life balance challenges and therefore be reluctant to take on more work responsibilities. This has been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 2.3 million women have left the workforce since February 2020, bringing their labor participation rate to levels not seen since 1988, according to the National Women’s Law Center. According to “Women in the Workplace,” a report from Lean In and McKinsey & Company, one in four women are considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers.

Unless companies intentionally foster the development of their female employees, it is nearly impossible for women to ascend to the corporate ladder’s highest rungs.

Yet when women do lead companies, the performance speaks for itself.

When Women Lead

Having more women in leadership roles isn’t just about gender equality; it’s about good business. Studies have shown that privately held technology companies led by women are more capital-efficient, achieving 35 percent higher ROI. Female-led venture-backed companies achieve 12 percent higher revenue than startups run by men, according to the Kauffman Foundation. Female-founded companies in the First Round Capital’s portfolio outperformed male-founded companies by 63 percent. Firms with female CEOs and CFOs produce superior stock price performance, compared to the market average. Firms with high gender diversity on their boards are more profitable and lager than firms with low gender diversity, according to a study from S&P Global Market Intelligence.

The time for change is now.

Rewriting the Narrative

There are concrete steps organizations can take to get more women into executive leadership roles, such as:

Messaging: Make your company an attractive place for women candidates by refreshing your messaging to address your commitment to diversity and by holding special events to attract female candidates.

Compensation: Tie gender diversity to executive compensation.

  • Bonus and equity payouts should have gender-related performance gates (e.g., percent of females at specific leadership level).
  • Ensure those performance gates break out leadership targets from individual contributor targets. Many companies, including mine, have great female representation at the individual contributor level, but once you move up into management, the percentage of women drops substantially.

Operations and Finance Exposure: Create programs to put women in P&L roles, thereby giving them accountability for running a revenue-generating organization. Consider creating rotation programs that would expose them to a variety of functions.

Networking: Create programs that give women exposure to executive leadership and opportunities to showcase their problem-solving skills.

  • Bring high potential females into senior leadership meetings to present about specific projects.
  • Bring women into board meetings where they can network with board members and show their skills.
  • Create mentoring programs to match high potential females with senior executives for a year or longer.
Leading by Example

I’m proud to be leading an organization that is focused on the professional development of all of our staff. Knowing the challenges women face has helped me to remove barriers to advancement and put into practice several strategies that will help women advance professionally. At AGS Health, we:

  • Have a Role Model Inspire series that allows me to address women leaders exclusively, motivating them to grow in their careers.
  • Provide exclusive learning and mentoring tracks for female leaders to support their career journey. Topics include critical thinking and cross-cultural awareness.
  • Offer end-to-end maternity support to ensure our female leaders’ careers don’t stall.
    • Manager support is critical during this period so the mother can return to work smoothly.
    • 90 percent of women in our delivery centers in India return to work after maternity leave.
  • Offer flexible work arrangements for new working mothers by providing partial, flexible work hours.
  • Host female-exclusive chat forums and networking communities that enable female colleagues to seek and share information.
What Organizations Can Do

There is a lot organizations can do to support and encourage female advancement, such as:

  • Create a workplace environment that supports transitions for women to higher profile roles.
  • Provide women with opportunities that to develop their sense of leadership purpose.
  • Support women’s motivation to lead and create opportunities for others to recognize and encourage their efforts.
  • Provide exposure to critical business functions like operations and finance.

For women to excel, the responsibility doesn’t just fall to the organization; women have play a significant role as well, such as:

  • Become a master of self-promotion. Be active on networks/platforms such as LinkedIn and CSweetener. Initiate and engage in meaningful discussions that position you as thought leaders.
  • Build leadership career aspirations. Take part in a career pathing exercise with your HR team or chart your path on your own. Regardless of your approach, you need to be clear on where you aspire to go professionally.
  • Be willing to take on special projects that have leadership visibility.
  • Get comfortable with speaking up and take on high-profile projects. Share what it will take for you to be successful in leading the project.
  • Believe in one’s potential and competence. Believe in yourself and your abilities to break the glass ceiling. If I can do it, you can do it.
  • Solve the right problems. Understand where your company is heading and the obstacles to getting there. Present solutions to your leadership.
  • Demonstrate a high level of emotional intelligence. Those with strong EI go further in their careers. Invest in advancing your EI.
  • Remember that men are your allies. Identify male colleagues who would be willing to support your efforts and be and advocate for you.
Men Are Part of the Solution

There is a human tendency to gravitate to people who are like oneself. As a result, powerful men tend to advocate for other men when leadership opportunities come up. Having awareness of this tendency and actively seeking out opportunities for women would help ensure diverse leadership. I’ve had some great male bosses. The best male leaders:

  • Encourage women to take risks and ensure they have a safety net if they struggle.
  • Identify women’s strengths and look for opportunities to leverage them. Women tend have strong social awareness and are good at building deep relationships.
  • Acknowledge women’s contributions and accomplishments publicly.
  • Help women secure a seat at the table so they can engage in meaningful, strategic business conversations.
Final Thoughts

To the women who aspire to the highest levels of leadership, I have some final thoughts for you:

  • Get comfortable with interrupting and challenging people’s thoughts during discussions.
  • “Echo” your female colleagues when you hear them make a good point, and ask them to do the same for you.
  • Learn when to listen, when to act on empathy, and when to put empathy in the background.
  • Ask for the promotion or raise you deserve. No one else will stand up for you the way you will stand up for yourself!
  • You don’t need to be a perfect fit for a job. Apply the 80/20 rule. If you are a great fit for 80% of the responsibilities, go for it!
  • Pay it forward. Send the elevator back down for other women.

Changing the narrative doesn’t mean that if I get a seat at the table you don’t; it means we need a bigger table.



Patrice Wolfe is the CEO of AGS Health.

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