Oliver Wyman study reveals lack of women leaders in healthcare

28 January 2019 Consulting.us 5 min. read
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It’s no exaggeration to say that women consumers dominate the healthcare industry. An Oliver Wyman study has found that more than 80% of healthcare decision-makers – those making buying and usage decisions – are women. Women also represent 65% of the workforce – a high number when compared to industries such as financial services (46%) or tech (26%).

Despite their obvious influence on the market, however, there is a notable absence of women leadership in the industry. Only 30% are in C-suite positions, 13% of which are CEOs. When women do reach CEO positions, it takes them on average three to five years longer than men. “Healthcare, unlike other industries, does not have a ‘women in healthcare’ problem, but a ‘women in healthcare leadership’ problem,” the study states.

Diversity matters

In any industry, diversity ultimately leads to better financial outcomes. While women are hardly the only type of diversity, they are particularly important in healthcare, because they make the majority of buying and usage decisions. “How can an organization (and more broadly, the industry) move towards becoming more consumer-oriented when it lacks a leadership team that reflects and relates to its primary customer?” the report asks.

How do women fare in the healthcare industry today

When women make it to roles in which they report to the CEO, they often serve as technical experts – chief human resource officers, chief legal officers, chief information officers. These positions involve duties “where technical expertise supersedes intangible qualities.” 

Male-dominated leadership is a tough club for women to enter. That’s no surprise, women say, as it’s difficult to build relationships with male leaders. “When you’re looking about how people network and forge relationships, there is a huge problem, because most of these activities are aligned with typical male interests – golfing, cigar bars. But it is in these settings that trust is established. It’s having a bigger impact than people think,” said one female CEO. 

Overall, trust is also more easily given to men; in fact, it’s often theirs to lose, at least in the opinion of women in the industry. “Many men automatically give trust and respect to a man, then take it away. Women have to earn trust and respect to begin with. I don’t think it’s conscious,” an anonymous female CEO said in the Oliver Wyman report. 

But when women were surveyed, researchers found they did not believe the challenges they faced in reaching the top were intentional. “Those in the C-suite, and one level below, did not feel men were directly obstructing them from reaching the top. Most men recognized the gap at the top leadership levels and felt it should be addressed,” the report states.

What makes a leader?

To women, results matter. When vying for a leadership role, they often lean heavily on what exactly they have achieved. What have they changed for the better? What have they accomplished in their previous position? Women are provably problem-solvers, but that alone isn’t enough. It’s the intangibles that matter.

Prevalence of women in c-suite roles at healthcare companies

“Results are important, but leadership is broader than a result and the way results are achieved is also important,” the authors state. An unwillingness to self-promote among women hinders leadership progress, as well. “Most said that self-promotion felt arrogant, and we got the sense that some saw little value in it. Women’s lack of self-promotion leaves leaders (with whom they likely don’t have personal connections) questioning their goals and intent.”

What’s the solution?

The Oliver Wyman study offers “critical actions” that will allow leaders to make conscious moves toward systematic and meaningful progress. Organizations must step up their commitment to considering women for leadership positions, balance the “uneven playing field when it comes to sponsorship and mentoring,” and address misconceptions and change the behaviors that ride alongside them. From there, new habits must be constructed.

Additionally, criteria for leadership roles must be clear and consistent. What qualities are companies looking for in a CEO, and why? This includes identifying intangible skills such as intuition and judgement. There must be no room for disappointment or suspicion when someone – woman or man – is overlooked for a position. Collaboration is also the way to go. This “means listening to difficult questions posed from both genders.” This involves not only direct questions, but reading body language and other internal methods of communication. 

Ultimately, diversity should sit near the top of a company’s leadership team’s priority list. “Healthcare organizations that can tackle barriers and leverage their powerful untapped potential will gain a competitive edge,” the report concludes. 

Related: Diversity mismatch among executives slowing female progress.