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Reaching the Pinnacle: Local women forge a path to the top in health care management

June 11, 2007
Local women forge a path to the top in health care management

Health care is the second-fastest-growing sector of the U.S. economy, employing more than 12 million workers, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Women make up nearly 80 percent of the health care work force, and increasingly they're moving into the executive ranks.

Locally, St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital, Riley Hospital for Children and Noblesville's Riverview Hospital all have women at the helm. And women hold top management spots at Indianapolisbased Roche Diagnostics Division and Indianapolis-based Sentry Logistic Solutions, a cold storage and third-party logistics services company working with pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms.

In addition, WellPoint Inc., one of the nation's biggest health insurers, is led by Angela Braly. She was promoted to CEO this month, making WellPoint the largest public company in the country with a woman at the helm.

A lack of role models has been a barrier to women's advancement in health care, said St. Vincent President Patricia Maryland. She came to Indianapolis in 2003 from Detroit, where she had served as president of Sinai-Grace Hospital.

"I have been fortunate to have had role models and mentors in my career, but some women are not presented with those opportunities," said Maryland, who has spent 30 years in health care. St. Vincent has implemented a leadership program to help both men and women grow in their leadership capacity, she said. Seeking out a host of mentors-a "mentor quilt"- allows women to learn from many perspectives, said Dr. Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, CEO of Riley Hospital. Also the top dean of research at the Indiana University Medical School, she joined the IU medical center staff 19 years ago and became CEO of Riley in 2004.

While the paths these women have taken to the top may be different, they agree that mentoring is key to moving more women into executive management. Even from the top, they still call their mentors, male and female, for advice from time to time. And they give back by being mentors.

"I strive to mentor others, both formally and informally," added Jennifer Marcum, CEO of Sentry Logistic Solutions. "It is very important to me to give back to others what so many people have generously given to me." Pescovitz agreed. "I take pride in my mentees' accomplishments much as I do in the accomplishments of my own three children." Nursing and beyond

Like many women, Riverview Hospital CEO Patricia Fox got her start in health care as a nurse. She served as vice president for patient care services at Wishard Health Services before coming to Riverview.

Fifty-six percent of women in health care management, but only 31 percent of men, have previous experience as clinicians, according to the American College of Healthcare Executives.

"My personal barrier was getting past the image I had of myself as a nurse, which was clinically focused, to one of being business-focused," Fox said. "I worked very hard to learn the business side of things and understand the cultural difference in the two worlds. It takes time to build the reputation of being business-focused." Fifty percent of Riverview's senior leadership team are women.

Taking chances a good thing

Marcum believes making a "brutally honest" self-assessment of strengths and weaknesses is crucial.

"I advise [women] not to be afraid to be a little gutsy from time to time," Marcum said. "Taking a chance or going outside of your comfort zone might be a little awkward at first, but it can result in huge payoffs, both personally and professionally."

There are no more barriers to advancement for women in health than in any other profession, said Tiffany Olson, who was named CEO of Roche Diagnostics Division in 2005.

"It is certainly better for women today than it was just 20 years ago," said Olson, who has 23 years of experience in the industry. "If you work hard, are smart and not afraid to stretch yourself into new areas in which you may not be comfortable, there aren't any barriers that can't be overcome."

In contrast to earlier studies where women achieved CEO positions at about 40 percent of the male rate, a 2006 survey found that the figure had risen to 63 percent of the male rate. The study was conducted by Chicago-based American College of Healthcare Executives, an international society of more than 30,000 health care executives.

A study being released this month could offer local health care organizations some management advice. The Fairfield, N.J.-based Health Care Businesswomen's Association will issue its first leadership study, which was funded by seven pharmaceutical and biotech companies. The report is expected to provide recommendations taken from industry professionals regarding the recruitment, retention and advancement of women into the most senior ranks of health care management. One area that will be studied is how to promote diversity when filling executive-management positions in health care.

Delving into diversity

St. Vincent's policy is to always look for the best possible talent regardless of race or gender, Maryland said.

"If a company truly evaluates its personnel based on ability, potential, track record and results, the outcome should be beneficial for the organization," she said. "If the process is fair in terms of recruitment and identification, then you should be able to select a very diverse group of individuals."

In 1992, ACHE, the National Association of Health Services Executives, and the Association of Black Health Care Executives, compared career achievements of their members. They found that blacks who had similar education and experience nonetheless held fewer management positions.

In 1997, the groups conducted a survey that found white women still dominated the female ranks of health care executives-36 percent, compared with minorities (23 percent were black, 26 percent were Hispanic and 15 percent were Asian).

Diversity in the workplace can "certainly strengthen an organization because thoughts and manners are elements of creative and innovative thinking," Marcum said. "Unique or divergent viewpoints may trigger new products, solutions or services for customers." She doesn't advocate, however, creating a special goal in a company to hire women. "We are capable of competing for and attaining positions and advancement opportunities without special provisions."

Pescovitz agrees. "There are many exceedingly talented women who have the capabilities, aspirations, qualities and qualifications of the top men," she said.

Managing life

All of the women interviewed for this story agree that family-friendly benefits like flex time and day care are important, and that finding work-life balance affects both men and women alike. Roche supervisors are encouraged to support family-friendly policies and programs, Olson said. "Work is part of who we are, but it doesn't make up the whole person," she said.

At Sentry, Marcum encourages employees to "work hard when on the job and to enjoy their time with their families when off the clock."

Fox believes that balance is key. "Everything is a tradeoff," she said. "I have missed some things in my children's lives, and you just can't get that back. Getting to and being in a leadership position, whether you are male or female, takes lots of hard work and dedication."

Companies should allow women to follow an unconventional schedule in their child-bearing years, Pescovitz said. "Family-friendly benefits are extremely important for women ... [but] supervisors should never accept a lesser-quality product from women."
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