Critical Inflection Points for Women Healthcare Leaders

In a series of posts, I will provide some insights we identified in a recent study of 20 female hospital CEOs that was conducted by NCHL with investigators from the University of Michigan. The project was funded by Hospira.  We are grateful for the input from the project’s advisory group and the 20 study participants.  Lead investigator Donald Sexton (UM doctoral student) presented these results in March at the ACHE Congress in Chicago and I presented them again in August at the Modern Healthcare Women Leaders in Healthcare Conference in Nashville.  Watch for a white paper from NCHL next month.

Starting from a point that many of us already know, the majority of today’s healthcare workforce is made up on women. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, hospitals employed 6.3 million workers;76%% were women (BLS, 2011). The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission indicated that women occupied 71% of first and mid-level officer and management positions and 53% of executive and senior officer positions in the private hospital industry (EEOC, 2012).   Despite this, women often experience career advancement challenges and remain significantly underrepresented in hospital CEO positions (Lantz, 2008; Hoss, Bobrowski, McDonagh, and Paris, 2011). The most recent periodic survey conducted by the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE) shows only 11% of women (compared to 22% of men) achieved the hospital CEO position. More importantly, ACHE’s periodic surveys have shown this gender disparity has changed very little over the past few decades (ACHE, 2012).

The purpose of this study was to analyze the career trajectories of successful female healthcare executives to determine the factors that generate inflections in their careers. We wanted to fill in the gaps of previous literature and answer the following questions: What are the career inflection points of women who reach the CEO position? Do inflection points differ over the career trajectory? Do the inflection points vary because of entry-level functional background? Are there any organizational support factors that influence the career trajectory of women?

Previous studies have identified potential factors that affect the career advancement of women in the hospital industry. For example, researchers have shown that gender disparities in CEO positions are associated with differences in education, experience, career aspirations, mentorship, and organizational support, to name a few. Existing research, however, is primarily cross-sectional and often does not contain sufficient information to determine causality. It lacks careful theorizing about the factors that impact gender inequality in CEO positions over time. Given that careers are longitudinal, complex, and dynamic, it is important to analyze the span of an executive’s career to see how they inflect, or changes direction, over time.

We defined an inflection point as, “A turning point after which a dramatic change, with either positive or negative results, is expected to result.” I will explore these inflection points of female executives in my next post.

In the meantime, let’s do a reflective exercise in think about what has brought us to where we are today. Tell us about an inflection point in your career? What happened that that impacted—favorably or not favorably—your career trajectory.

About Christy Lemak

teacher and scholar interested in strenghthening leadership in health care

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