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There are multiple areas that still impede women’s progress in healthcare leadership, including identifying women with high potential. However, experts say that the biggest issue is finding mentors and sponsors for those high-potential women. “Exposure to high-level executives is critical to female career advancement,” says Heidi Leeds, senior client partner with Korn Ferry and the firm’s health insurance sector leader. “Access to mentors and sponsors who can put high-potential women in front of members of the leadership team and champion them when opportunities arise is a key ingredient for any healthcare organization hoping to achieve gender parity.”
Indeed, 65% of the female CEOs Korn Ferry interviewed for Women CEOs Speak said they only realized they could become a CEO after someone told them it was actually possible. Without that sort of sponsorship, women who do show leadership potential often will get management spots in human resources, marketing, and legal departments—important divisions, but areas that are neither critical to healthcare operations nor require profit-and-loss experience.
That lack of direct mentors has made stories like Pat Wang’s more the exception than the rule. In her role with the Greater New York Hospital Association, Wang worked with the CEOs of the 300 hospitals that make up the trade association. “I developed an understanding about the sort of challenges they faced and how they dealt with them and what was meaningful to them,” she says. Yet almost none of the CEOs were women, Wang says, so her leadership model was indirect and she was not groomed or sponsored to progress eventually to the C-suite. She drew on her other experiences to gain the confidence to lead a large organization and understand the business fundamentals needed to succeed.