Building Diversity in Healthcare Administration: Women’s Perspectives from the C-Suite

Guest post by Wendy L. Brower McLeod

Like the patients they serve, a hospital’s executive staff should come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures: women, men, old, young. Multiple countries of origin. Building diversity in healthcare organizations is critical to ensure that the needs of all patients are being met, and that these organizations are employing the best within their communities.

Sharon O’Keefe, President of the University of Chicago Medical Center, and Connie Cibrone, Former President and CEO of Allegheny General Hospital, are top executives who have climbed to the highest rungs of a ladder traditionally held by their male counterparts. Here they share their histories and explain how their minority-status has affected their lives on the C-suite… and, interestingly, how it has not.

Journeys to the top

There are as many paths to the executive floor as there are leaders who work there. Some in healthcare arrive in the corner offices after years of deliberate planning; others make the leap after full careers as clinicians.

O’Keefe’s goal, more than anything, was to have a greater influence. Recognizing that clinical care delivery systems don’t operate in isolation of the broader enterprise, she wanted the opportunity to pursue her interest in “systems thinking” to explore how the individual components of a hospital work together to support clinicians.

“I needed to step outside a clinical discipline to have a broader impact,” O’Keefe explains.

Cibrone, on the other hand, was guided into administration by a mentor. After starting her healthcare career in planning and marketing, Cibrone transitioned to operations when an opportunity for an AVP presented itself. “My mentor suggested that I make the move, as it would be a clear path to a hospital COO/CEO,” Cibrone said. “Had he not guided me to do this, I am not sure I would have made the move.”

In a sea of men

More than three out of four workers employed in the healthcare field are women[1], according to one study, and increasing diversity in healthcare management remains a major focus for healthcare administrators. And more women are breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling.

In a true sign of progress, both executives in this blog report that their minority status in the C-suite is almost immaterial. “I don’t think I faced any real challenges,” Cibrone states. “I focused on doing the best job I could and being effective.”

O’Keefe agrees. “Every once in a while, I have an ‘ah ha’ moment, when I realize I’m the only female in the room,” she says. “It has never been a source of discomfort. I’ve never felt excluded or not involved.”

Advice

We asked O’Keefe and Cibrone if they had any wisdom to share with younger women beginning their travels up the ranks of healthcare administration.

O’Keefe is pointed in her guidance: “It’s not really about the size and expansiveness of what you own, but your ability to identify new ideas that you want to drive through to completion.” 

Further, O’Keefe suggests:

  • Your resume should tell a story:  Explain why you accepted certain jobs and the key lessons you took from them. Share what value you added to the organization during your time there.
  • Strive for new challenges: Don’t replicate an identical role in the same job for too long. Focus on new things you can learn in each assignment.
  • Work hard: Gain the experience you need to be able to speak with knowledge and confidence. The higher you go in an organization, the harder the competition will be.

In a broader view, Cibrone adds, “I would recommend that women focus on what they are interested in. If they think they would like operations, they should go for it… regardless of gender.”

A benefit to everyone

Building diversity in healthcare is more than an exercise in political correctness.  Patients come from countries around the globe and half of them are women. A C-suite comprised of men with a homogenous look would hardly reflect the communities that hospitals serve. Women are aiming higher than ever before, and their sights are set on the corner office.


[1] Kircheimer, B. 2007.  “A Woman’s Place Is In….” Modern Healthcare 37 (16):6-7

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  1. I completely agree and I am happy to say that we are seeing more and more women take a prominent role in the administration of Healthcare. Also, great advice for others that are looking to get ahead in healthcare administration!

  2. Pat says:

    Great article. Creating a diverse work environment is definitely an important undertaking. At my organization (a large university hospital), we have a very large number of women working in upper management. Our CEO is a woman and she has done a great job leading the organization.