Women – not men – hold the key to bridging the gender diversity gap in healthcare

We explore how women provide the key to bridging the issue of the gender diversity gap in healthcare.

Women have their share of difficulties climbing the corporate ladder in their chosen professional roles at the best of times but this issue is particularly prominent in the world of healthcare. Although women represent an overwhelming majority of the healthcare workforce, they are significantly underrepresented – particularly at the executive and board levels.

Whilst women make up around three quarters of the NHS workforce, just 37% of senior roles on clinical commissioning group governing bodies, foundation trusts and NHS provider boards are held by women. Similar disparities are found in medical leadership across private primary and secondary care as well. On top of this, only 6 women have appeared in the Health Service Journal ranking of the top 100 most powerful people in health in almost a decade.

Over in the US, it’s a similar story. Indeed, a recent study found that women working in the healthcare system are 52% less likely to get a promotion than men. So why is this?

Women face serious obstacles in gaining senior roles including the challenges of juggling family life and their careers as well as the overt sexism that unfortunately still prevails in areas of healthcare.

Indeed, a survey by the Health Service Journal found that over a third (37 per cent) of women said they had encountered sexual discrimination and just under a half of respondents believed that having children would be detrimental to their careers.

Hypocritical and negative attitudes towards women were also cited as barriers to their progress – too often successful female leaders are deemed to be imitating men, while those that fail are judged to have done so because they displayed a surfeit of supposedly female characteristics.

There is a school of thought which argues that the gender gap in management is down to women holding themselves back. They propose that women consistently underestimate their own abilities and often do not apply for positions as they feel that they lack the qualifications needed compared to men who believe that they only need to meet 50% of the requirements for a role.

It has also been suggested that women are all too often uncomfortable taking credit for accomplishments, hoping instead that their hard work will be noticed and rewarded without calling attention to it. Men on the other hand, tend to actively voice and promote their achievements and are more often recognised as a result.

Women have also at times been deemed more aggressive than men, but this is arguably a result of women feeling greater pressure to prove themselves. This comes alongside claims that women are unable to negotiate well and are reluctant to ask for what they want.

On the contrary, research has found that women are particularly well suited to lead healthcare organisations as they possess relevant traits such as compassion, transparency and the ability to effectively foster teamwork.

Similarly, women have been found to have a more collaborative, inclusive, empathetic and understanding leadership style than men. In fact, a number of studies have rated women as better leaders – outperforming in a range of leadership traits.

There are some great female leaders in healthcare today and we should expect to see more women in the years to come. Yes, the glass ceiling still exists but women are slowly breaking down this barrier and reaching their professional goals.

Women must continue to strive for executive level positions, and organisations need to create company cultures that nurture and support women with initiatives such as female leadership mentors and paid parental leave for fathers. It’s important that women are provided with opportunities for advancement including formal programs for the development needed to move up to the next level. The healthcare profession can only benefit and become stronger with gender diversity.