It’s Time for Healthcare to #BreakTheBias

It’s 2022—over one hundred years have passed since the women’s suffrage movement; women make up more than half of the college-educated workforce; and the U.S. has our first female Vice President. But, many of us continue to ask, “Is that enough?” (Hint: the answer is a resounding NO!)

In anticipation of International Women’s Day on March 8th, Medrio’s female leadership were asked to reflect on the state of female equity in the healthcare industry. These are their experiences.

The Reality of Gender Parity in Healthcare Today

Despite the fact that women make up over 70% of the healthcare industry, only 30% of executive roles are filled by women and a mere 12% of healthcare CEOs are women.

Melissa Newara, Senior Director of Subject Matter Expertise at Medrio commented on this phenomenon by noting, “It’s not that there is a lack of women in the industry, it’s just that they stall out at middle management and you look up into the C-suite and think, where’d they go?

Whether due to unconscious gender bias, societal constructs, or a lack of acknowledgement about the problem—the numbers don’t lie and this challenges the entire healthcare industry to not only understand the bias, but identify ways to break it.

This can feel easier said than done, however. Many of the gender biases that exist, especially in the modern workforce, stem from unconscious biases rooted in outdated gender stereotypes.

Nicole Latimer, Chief Executive Officer at Medrio, shared, “I’ve experienced being paid less than my male colleagues in a similar role or the exact same role. I’ve been paid less than men who reported to and had fewer responsibilities than me. I’ve seen male colleagues who had inferior performance be promoted ahead of me. I admit that I often did not recognize in real time that these things were happening or that these biases were occuring.”

Practices like these – whether conscious or unconscious – create a gender parity for women that hinders them as they move up the corporate ladder. But evidence shows that organizations with greater inclusion of women in C-level positions were 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability.

As evidence mounts, the healthcare industry appears to be recognizing the necessity of women holding top positions. Yet, a 2019 study found that half of C-suite healthcare executives believe women are still passed over for promotions based on their gender. That is despite the fact that 59% believe their organization would be more profitable with greater gender parity on the executive level.

The problem can be even more stark for female leaders of color. As Rochelle Shearlds, Director of Global Customer Success noted, “As an African American woman, my experience is unique in that I can’t separate my gender from my race.”

As Shearlds pointed out, women of color represent an even smaller minority of decision-making roles. A 2020 report from McKinsey found that women of color only makeup 5% of C-suite positions; 7% of VP positions, 4% of SVP positions, and only 3% of health care boards.

What this construct creates, ironically, is a system where the people who know the least about structural racism and gender disparity have the most power to control how the healthcare field understands and addresses it. This results in an environment where women, and especially women of color, are relegated to more stereotypical roles.

Shearlds continued, “I have experienced things like being interrupted while speaking or being asked to take notes even though my male counterpart’s role suggested it would make sense for him to complete that task.”

Newara witnessed similar treatment by citing, “general bullying behavior in meetings…interrupting, speaking over, and ignoring comments by women in the room by both men and women.”

But, as Vinky Mehta, Manager of the Program Management Office pointed out, standing up to this behavior can also backfire. “Being a passionate and strong assertive person, I was sometimes called ‘bossy’. But, when the same traits were shown by a male colleague of mine, he was called a ‘leader’.”

How Gender Bias Hurts the Healthcare Industry

So how does this treatment impact the workplace?

It takes women 3-5 years longer to reach CEO than their male colleagues. Unconscious bias directly impacts how women interact in the workplace and it is a struggle for women to gain the implicit trust that their male counterparts share.

Women are less likely to self-promote than their male counterparts and they don’t have the easy access to a large network of women leaders or mentors as their male colleagues do.

As Project Management Leader, Becky Capps, pointed out, “There’s a perception that if you haven’t done something that therefore you can’t do it or that you’re not capable of doing it. Managers have to be willing to take a risk on someone and not be biased by their own thoughts.”

All this directly reflects the disproportionate number of women in the healthcare industry and the lack of women in leadership positions at these same companies.

When considering these harsh truths, it’s important to recognize how an individual’s experience doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but as consequences that go beyond just the personal.

Latimer pointed out that “80% of the healthcare decisions in any given family are made by women,” yet that representation is not reflected in most healthcare companies’ board rooms.

“When you look at healthcare boards the picture is a little deceptive,” Latimer noted. “On one hand 75% of healthcare boards have 3 or more female directors. But healthcare boards tend to be a bit bigger than corporate boards and right now there are no healthcare boards that are at least 50% women. In contrast, 16 out of the top 500 corporate companies’ boards are 50% women.”

Women are expected to take on the responsibility of healthcare in their day to day lives, yet don’t share 50% of the seats on a healthcare board. The healthcare industry has notoriously failed women in terms of the care they have received, from not believing a woman when she expresses her pain or ignoring her medical requests and needs.

In fact, women were not allowed to participate in clinical trials until 1933, leaving a gap in knowledge on how medications affect women differently than men.

Latimer continues, “When the key customer in an industry is so severely underrepresented it means that the healthcare industry is not capitalizing on a lot of unknown, unmet needs. It means they’re not addressing what women and families actually need.”

Helping Healthcare #BreakTheBias

Despite these disheartening statistics and shared experiences, it’s important to recognize the work that is happening and what the industry can do to help change this.

Shearlds says, “I think that it’s very simple what needs to be done. Hire more women. Hire more diverse talent. The company and industry should be able to speak to a specific program and initiation that they are doing to break those biases.”

Representation is key. According to a study conducted by Catalyst, the Fortune 500 companies that had the highest number of women in their leadership roles performed better financially than those that didn’t.

“There’s that connection when you see representation in yourself in higher levels. That is really how companies are successful. We are successful because of our diversity, because of our differences. We can reach different levels of decision making based on the experiences we see collectively around the table,” says Kathryn Cole, VP of Human Resources at Medrio.

“I was a single mom for most of my life…And was fortunate enough to have a supervisor that understood that to allow women the opportunity to succeed. We have to acknowledge that women most often are the primary caregiver at home, as well. So this concept of work-life balance – which was so important to me as a single mom – is a thing that was supported by my supervisor too. And I was so appreciative of that.”

Latimer admits that breaking down generations of bias is easier said than done, and provides a four step plan:

  1. We should demand women make 50% of applicants for any position.
  2. We should be focusing our interviewing around data and results, by asking what results have the candidates produced in their current roles, and what is the quantifiable span of responsibilities that each candidate has in his or her current role. If it’s appropriate, you should be incorporating some kind of skills test into the interview process to get away from biases.
  3. It’s ensuring that women and men are paid equally for similar roles and for similar results.
  4. Inclusion has to be a core value. We need to celebrate diversity. We need to mine the potential of diversity. We need to tap into the greater productivity, and the greater engagement that comes when people have the opportunity to be their authentic selves at work.

Cole shared one of the ways Medrio supports inclusion is through engaging the external consultant, NeuroLeadership Institute, to conduct Diversity, Equity, and Inclusions training. “[NLI] has done a lot of research on what motivates people to make decisions, on uncovering biases, and on ensuring that the company is best prepared to make decisions in a way that cuts out some of these biases that we might not even know we bring to the table.”

Shearlds’ mentions, “Something else that could be done, work with organizations like Black Women in Clinical Research and create formal programs that give ALL women opportunities to showcase their talent.” Latimer also shares Break into the Boardroom and Women Business Leaders as organizations making a difference in the industry.

In Conclusion

The progress that has been made in breaking the gender bias should be celebrated.

As Latimer shared, “Creating systemic change to address unconscious bias is really difficult. When you’re trying to change systems around biases that people don’t even recognize that they have, that takes extraordinary commitment; it takes extraordinary effort and you have to really be willing to go well above and beyond your day to day corporate operations to make real change happen.”

The first step in breaking biases is admitting that they exist. From there, we as a healthcare industry must look for ways to challenge it on a daily basis. As the industry looks to create more inclusion, we need to ask how we are creating opportunities for women to not only have a seat at the table, but also a voice at the table.

This year, on International Women’s Day, Medrio challenges our entire healthcare and clinical trials community to assess their own biases and look for ways to bridge gaps for not only women, but all underrepresented communities.

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