Oliver Wyman exec says men and women view leadership differently, propelling the gender gap in healthcare

Like many industries, the healthcare sector has a gender parity issue when it comes to leadership positions. Despite countless conversations around the issue, in 2019 women only made up 23.7% of executives of Fortune 500 healthcare companies and 37.1% of hospital executives, according to Rock Health. The numbers were even worse in the startup world, where only 14% of digital health deals were closed by female-led startups. 

“We are really living in transformative times, and yet, when it comes to women in leadership, particularly healthcare leadership, we feel often like we have been having the same conversations for a very long time,” Nicole Fisher, president of Health & Human Rights Strategies, and a contributor at Forbes, said during a women in the workplace event at HLTH this morning.

“I don’t believe there is a lack of intention, but we see the same statistics about women being a majority of the healthcare workforce, women being decision-makers in families when it comes to health decisions, and yet the higher you look, the less women you see. So, what are we missing?”

Over the last decade we’ve seen a wave of programs and initiatives aimed at boosting the number of women in leadership roles, but the results haven’t always been clear. 

“In the many discussions my team has had with hundreds of executives at this point, both men and women, there is no doubt that everyone has the right intention,” Terry Stone, managing partner Health and Life Sciences and global chair of inclusion and diversity at Oliver Wyman, said on the panel.

“I think everyone is aware of the fact that more diversity would be good. It would be good for business. Forget about if you think it is the right thing to do, it’s good for business.”

While a company may be onboard on an intellectual level, there can be other factors impacting the results, including underlying misunderstandings.

“When people have good intentions, but the results aren’t happening, there is something going on below the surface,” Stone said. “Something hidden that people don’t see, but something is getting in the way. That’s exactly what we think is going on here, and it’s why, interestingly, 50% of men think that this is a high priority, getting women in senior leadership roles, but only 27% of women feel the same way. I think what it comes down to is we are each experiencing it a different way, and we have very different views on what good looks like and what has impact and will work.”

For folks in the early career stage, demonstrated functional expertise, skill and reliability, can help get an employee noticed, Stone said. The challenge for many women is at the leadership level, where the definition of what a leader looks and acts like depends on who you are talking to.

“We asked both men and women: What are the top three traits of an effective leader? You’d expect there to be a lot of commonality. But in the top three, they only have one trait that they both polled in common, which is confidence,” she said.

“But then what would happen is that [for] men, the other two are about being direct and decisive, and women’s other two are about empowering teams and being collaborative. If that is your default assumption going into it, is there any surprise that we probably prioritize different things or act in different ways that don’t make sense to the other? And that because we don’t have a common set of rules or way of viewing it, it gets in our collective way.”

She noted that women are often automatically expected to help solve the gender parity question, which isn’t necessarily true of men. 

“When it comes to men helping the challenge of women and gender diversity they also get this halo effect. I call it the hero syndrome. The male who is really into the idea of gender diversity winds up looking like the hero, whereas it’s almost expected of the women. … But it’s part of the reason that women feel like more is on their shoulders at work to make change, but they don’t feel as supported in it. I think they also feel like what needs to change is a little different and the ideas they throw out there don’t get adopted as readily.”

While the issues of gender parity in the healthcare ecosystem are clear, many companies are looking towards the future and the next steps. 

“The first thing I’d recommend is that the invisible barriers need to no longer be invisible. There is so much about what we don’t see. … By getting smarter and understanding it better, you can get it out of your collective way.”

Stone’s other recommendation concerned sponsorship of women in the workplace. 

“Most people are over-mentored and under-sponsored. The words are used too interchangeably,” she said. “At its core is that sponsors advocate on your behalf and they use their own credibility and capital to do that. In some ways they use their power in the organization or influence to influence what happens for other people.” 

Stone urges individuals to be vocal in promoting and sponsoring women in the future. 

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