The path to becoming a CEO doesn’t normally include a stop in a CFO post. Fewer than 15% of chief financial officers matriculate into the top position. Evelyn Bourke is among the exceptions.
Bourke’s background is in insurance, and she spent most of her career as a financial officer in the corporate world. To be sure, the international health insurance and healthcare group Bupa recruited Bourke to be its CFO in 2012 because of her extensive experience in financial services. Three years into her role, Bupa’s board of directors appointed Bourke acting CEO after Stuart Fletcher stepped down in March 2016. A few months later, she became the group’s CEO, the second female CEO in Bupa’s history.
Bupa has 15.7 million customers worldwide, and health insurance revenue accounts for 73% of its business. The remaining revenue comes from health provisions, operating health clinics, hospitals, dental centers, and other care services around the world, serving another 15 million customers.
“Bupa’s brand is female-friendly,” says Bourke. “We do a good job of advancing women in general and middle-management roles into supervisory and leadership roles.” The data supports Bourke’s claims. Of the organization’s top 100 leaders globally, 37% are female. Bourke’s group executive team is 36% female, and women account for 41.6% of Bupa’s board.
Bupa’s journey in advancing female leaders is a model for the healthcare industry. In many regions around the world, women are encountering the same obstacles that prevent them from advancing as their counterparts in finance, manufacturing, and nearly every other industry—namely unconscious bias, a lack of mentors, and few opportunities to run a revenue-generating division of a business. Consider, for instance, that despite women making up nearly 80% of the healthcare workforce in the United States, they hold only 20% of key leadership roles. Only 19% of hospitals in the US are run by women, and only 4% of all healthcare organizations have a female CEO.
At the same time, however, complex new treatments, regulations, and competitors are forcing healthcare organizations to find agile leaders who embrace and excel in uncertain environments. The global movement toward pay equality, diversity and inclusion, and social impact are forcing organizations across industries to look inward at cultural barriers that might be stalling progress.
Certainly, there is mounting research in favor of a shift toward female leadership, showing that organizations with the highest percentage of women leaders deliver better returns for shareholders. Simon Wiggins, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry in London, says of the healthcare industry’s attempts to advance women into the C-suite in Europe, “We have come a long way but we still have a long way to go. We just need to continue the momentum for the next generation to further build upon.”