The Path for Women Healthcare Leaders Is Often Rocky, but It Doesn’t Have To Be
Women leaders continue to face sexism in the workplace and the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped. As women leave the workforce to care for their families, traditional gender stereotypes threaten to resurface.
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COVID-19 has had a profound effect on women in the workplace. In fact, a global survey by Deloitte found that 51% of women are less optimistic about their career prospects than before the pandemic. Before the pandemic, the dialogue centered on equal pay and what women need to thrive on the job. Now, record numbers of women are leaving the workforce to care for children and older parents at home. I’m sad about the talent that we’ve lost and the last year and a half has caused me to reflect on women’s leadership and my own experience as an entrepreneur and business professional. I have the opportunity to speak at the upcoming Blue Cross Blue Shield Women’s Leadership Forum and here are some additional reflections and advice to women leaders in healthcare.
Women continue to face systemic, as well as more nuanced sexism
After starting several wellness studios in Chicago, I relocated to Seattle with my partner in the early-2000s and co-founded a startup called Vera Fitness. The company’s vision was to launch wellness studios designed for women. When the Great Recession hit, however, we pivoted to corporate wellness. I developed 12-week coaching programs for weight loss and other health-related issues that companies were facing. The company, which had rebranded to Vera Whole Health, then pivoted again to provide onsite healthcare for corporations.
During that shift, part of my work as Chief Visionary Officer and Vice President of Vera University (our vocational school for health coaches) was to raise funding rounds for Vera Whole Health. The CEO and I met with venture capital firms and other sources of financing to pitch the value of the company.
Although I was a co-founder and a seasoned entrepreneur, more than once people turned to me and asked me to get coffee for the group. In one pitch, a prospective investor spoke only to my male co-founder and never made eye contact with me. My co-founder was furious about how others diminished my participation in the process and he began to serve as my “ally,” bringing me into the conversation when he saw others minimizing my role.
When women leaders are in situations like these – ones that are rife with sexism – it’s often hard to know what to do that won’t make the situation worse. If a woman speaks up and insists on taking up space in the room, she might be categorized negatively. The unfortunate reality is that there aren’t many leadership archetypes for women that are acceptable, and if you are a woman of color or LGBTQ+ and a leader, the number of acceptable archetypes shrinks even further.
Many women have internalized systemic sexism and worry about speaking out for fear of the backlash. When I went back to school four years ago for my MBA, I realized the curriculum was biased. For four academic quarters, we reviewed case studies that did not feature a woman leader. To put that into perspective, during two years of study the average MBA program will analyze and discuss 500 case studies.
In response, I tried to create a coalition of women to educate the staff and professors about institutional bias. But not all women wanted to call attention to themselves or ask for an upgrade to our curriculum. It highlighted how we internalize sexism and how we’ve been trained not to ask for our needs to be met.
What can women (and men) leaders do?
I believe that the path forward is to cultivate an organizational culture where sexism and other -isms are addressed. Here are four ideas that leaders of all genders can put into action:
1. Talk to male colleagues about the situation. Help them see the bigger picture of sexism in the workplace and encourage them to challenge their implicit biases. I’ve found it effective to discuss the dilemmas I’ve faced with male colleagues, especially after we have built a strong collegial relationship. This enables them to see how different behaviors contribute to the -isms that are embedded in our current system.
2. Ask men and other women leaders to serve as allies in the workplace and to elevate colleagues. After the CEO of Vera Whole Health saw how I was treated in that pitch meeting, he and I strategized ways that he could validate my leadership in future fundraising meetings. Often, he would open the discussion saying, “‘I’d like Valerie to share the value proposition of what Vera brings to the table.” This made me feel that I had an ally in the room and sometimes this signalling even validated to others who I was as a leader.
3. Look for internalized sexism in yourself and seek to improve the psychological safety of those around you. This is particularly important if you have positional power. The women leaders in my MBA program realized that they were in a position to serve as mentors to younger women. They were willing to stand up and try to address the bias in the curriculum when they recognized that their work would benefit future generations of women coming to the program.
4. Remember that the next generation of talent expects everyone to be treated equally. Millennials are calling society’s bluff. They want integrity and authenticity in the workplace, not just words painted on the corporate office’s wall. Young talent expects their leaders to “walk the talk” of diversity and inclusion every day.
There’s little doubt that the life of a woman leader is challenging, confusing, and filled with mixed messages. Previous generations have worked hard to ensure that women have a seat at the table but those seats are disappearing before our eyes due to the pandemic. We need to continue and expand the work of promoting women, so all can use their talents to the maximum extent possible in our organizations.