Did you know that just 22 percent executive positions in Fortune 500 healthcare companies are filled by women, according to a 2018 report by Rock Health? What's more is the same report found that just one third of executives at hospitals are women, and only 10 to 12 percent of funded, digital healthcare startups have female CEOs. This disparity in leadership has made it challenging for women who enter the medical industry. In fact, 58 percent of women believe that the lack of females in leadership roles is a leading cause for gender inequality.
As we step into the real world of women working in healthcare day in and day out, what does that inequality look like? For Sandi Knight, it was always a lack of mentors. For Shantay Carter, it’s outright disrespect of her education. The challenges of being a woman in healthcare look different for everyone, but the following three issues appear as a common thread between women of all races, levels of education and positions within the industry.
1. A lack of mentors
This is a challenge for women in many industries. But according to Sandi Knight, CHRO of HealthMarkets, it’s a dire challenge for women in healthcare. Knight has personally experienced this lack of mentorship herself, and believes it’s of a particular detriment in the ever-changing healthcare industry.
She explains: “New executives especially need this wisdom since not everyone will go to HR as a resource. Since healthcare is so fast-paced and ever-changing, this guidance is particularly important.”
The key to overcoming this challenge is seeking out a mentor yourself, says Knight.
“Ask friends, neighbors or colleagues if they admire someone who is an executive that might be willing to work with you.”
Whether you find someone or not, Knight stresses that all female executives should never be afraid to ask questions and learn from and observe other successful executives from all industries.
2. Not being taken seriously
Theresa Siaw overcame racism during her childhood and well into adulthood, and turned that into an unwavering dedication to build her business. She’s now the CEO and founder of OMNI Medical Student Training Program and the Director of Business Development for OMNI Healthcare, but being a woman in medical business development means she’s faced many obstacles. Foremost is the challenge of not being taken seriously “at a table full of men meeting to build partnerships." This lack of respect has gone even further for Siaw, leading to inappropriate advances “during professional meetings and in work settings.”
But what could have been the final straw has only pushed her harder. Instead of leaving her business behind, she’s done what many women in healthcare have had to do: forge ahead. She has grown her business and continues to build partnerships with hospitals in her community, inspired by her medical clinic as an outlet for the underserved members of the community.
Shantay Carter, Founder of Women of Integrity Inc., has dealt with similar challenges as nurse.
Carter explains: “My biggest challenge in healthcare is being a woman of color. I’ve to deal with doctors or other hospital staff not taking me seriously, or them thinking that I am not smart enough.”
But that doesn’t stop Carter from helping the people who need her. Instead, she says, “dealing with these challenges, has made me a better and stronger nurse. Sometimes, adversity builds resilience.”
3. Being considered second-best to male counterparts
For many women in healthcare, the challenges don’t just come from working with sexist coworkers. In many cases, patients cast judgements or treat female professionals differently than their male counterparts as well.
Elsie Koh, MD, EMHL and Interventional Radiologist/Medical Director at Azura Vascular Care, found that patients would come to her office and say, “I thought I was meeting a male doctor.” Koh even had a female patient request a male colleague — much to the patient’s detriment.
Koh explains: “I actually had more experience doing vein work and [the coworker she requested] was being trained by me; he was junior to me by seven years.”
Still, Koh doesn’t let this challenge affect her work or the passion for what she does. Koh says, “Just like I try to look at patients as human beings and not people of a certain background or color, I try not to judge when others are judging me. Everyone has a story. Patients are often feeling lousy, and everyone arrives with preconceived notions that often come to them subconsciously, through experience.”
Instead of getting angry, Koh focuses on educating, showing patients that she’s a human too — in addition to being a very qualified, Asian woman doctor.
“Patients see my confidence, skillset and compassion, and learn to change their thoughts. I am confident with who I am and why I'm here.”
Unfortunately, there’s a lack of hope that anything will change for women in healthcare any time soon, according to the aforementioned 2018 report from Rock Health. The survey authors say, “perhaps pessimism comes from the sluggish pace of change. The percentage of women on Fortune 500 healthcare executive teams and boards has been nearly flat since 2015.”
Without the ability to see into the future, however, the women who shared their stories here are doing the only thing they can: remaining confident in their place within the industry, level of skill, and ability to forge ahead for the good of the patients they serve. Every industry is evolving as women find a louder voice around the world. Will we see change soon? No one can make that guess — but we can be certain that more and more women will continue raise their voice in the name of change.