Janet Elkin looks back on the early days of her career and remembers struggling to be taken seriously as a woman. During a job interview, the interviewer noticed Elkin’s engagement ring and started calculating when she would leave to have a baby. In another role, a colleague made a disparaging comment: “Janet’s so sensitive.”

But now, Elkin realizes that the challenges she faced as a single mother and young woman in the workplace have positively affected her leadership style. As president and CEO of GHR Healthcare, a corporate affiliate member of America’s Essential Hospitals that focuses on health care staffing, she’s led her company through structural changes while staying attentive to her staff’s needs.

“No matter what, I was going to find a way to get things done,” Elkin said at View from the C-Suite, a panel on women in health care at the final session of the association’s Essential Women’s Leadership Academy (EWLA) in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 16.

This biennial leadership development program, launched in 2016, seeks to close the gender gap in health care leadership roles. Women make up 70 percent of health care service managers and 47 percent of medical school graduates, but representation decreases at the top. Just 19 percent of hospital CEOs are women, and women run only 4 percent of health care companies. Through a mentorship program, coaching, periodic in-person training, and online networking, EWLA gives women leaders at essential hospitals the skills they need to succeed in an evolving environment. The second class of EWLA participants had 10 mentor-mentee pairs from 16 hospitals around the country.

Other panelists at the Oct. 16 session included:

  • Susan DeVore, MM, president and CEO of corporate affiliate member Premier Inc., in Charlotte, N.C.;
  • Delvecchio Finley, MPP, CEO of Alameda Health System, in Oakland, Calif.; and
  • Susan Moffatt-Bruce, MD, PhD, MBA, executive director of University Hospital at The Ohio State University (OSU) Wexner Medical Center, in Columbus, Ohio.

As members of the EWLA Advisory Committee, Moffatt-Bruce and Finley helped develop the program’s curriculum.

Susan DeVore, Janet Elkin, Delvecchio Finley, Susan Moffatt-Bruce, and Beth Feldpush speak about creating a workplace culture that supports women.

DeVore’s experience in health care leadership was like that of many other women: as she rose to the executive level, she faced more and more gender-based challenges. While a charismatic mentor energized her early in her consulting career, she found herself pigeonholed by her past when she assumed greater leadership roles — a behavior she calls “box theory,” describing how individuals are limited by the “box” in which others put them. Instead of falling victim to box theory, DeVore urged EWLA participants to recognize and expand their capabilities beyond what others may believe possible.

Essential hospital leaders of all genders can help women expand those capabilities by creating opportunities for them to develop leadership skills and rise to the C-suite. For Finley, that meant casting a wider net to attract diverse candidates when recruiting for open job positions.

“Being a woman, person of color, a person from a disadvantaged socioeconomic background … gives people the position to see the world differently,” he said.

Mentorship programs also can help cultivate diverse leadership and develop women leaders. OSU’s Center for Faculty Advancement, Mentoring, and Engagement has a dedicated Women in Medicine and Science Committee to reduce barriers to success for women, promote equity, and pair women faculty with mentors, Moffatt-Bruce shared. Similarly, Premier launched an internal women’s leadership program that targeted women in middle management and tracked participants’ career journeys.

While structured leadership programs like EWLA are invaluable, informal mentorship can be just as meaningful for cultivating women’s confidence and imparting career advice.

“In supporting young women, make it overt and clear that you have the time and energy for people,” Moffatt-Bruce said. Sparking women’s passion at a young age can help them develop lifelong confidence.

On the flip side, DeVore and Elkin urged early-career women to take initiative in seeking out mentors and not to hesitate when asking for help.

“You have to say it, ask it, demand it,” DeVore said. “It’s not going to happen on its own.”

Drawing on her own experience as OSU’s first chief quality officer, Moffatt-Bruce urged women to accept opportunities, even if they are nervous about taking on new roles. “As women in leadership, it’s usually about the ‘yes’ that gets you where you want to be,” she said. But she admitted that there were times in life where she needed to say “no” to focus on family and other pursuits.

DeVore also recognized the tradeoffs that leaders, especially parents, often make, urging EWLA participants to be honest with others about their limitations and cultivate a flexible work environment.

“I think, sometimes, we’re afraid to admit that, or tell people there’s lots of ways to get where you want to go,” she said. “I encourage all the women — and men — to be brave enough to write their own rules. If you give people that freedom, they work harder than they would ordinarily ever work.”

In addition to promoting flexibility, panelists urged hospital leaders to support women in the workplace by celebrating and cultivating their strengths instead of dwelling on criticism. “That’s an environment that’s much more conducive to developing leaders,” Moffatt-Bruce said.

EWLA panel

Essential Women’s Leadership Academy participants speak with panelists about creating an environment supportive of women.

Finley agreed. In his opinion, when men and women are given the same assignments, men come in more confident, but women come in more prepared. He urged hospital leaders not to overlook women’s preparedness and hard work.

“Calling that out is so important,” Finley said. “You have to see value in what the person is doing and reinforce that.”

By increasing leadership opportunities, providing mentorship, and modeling flexibility and tenacity,  essential hospital leaders can create an environment that celebrates and supports women and people of all genders. At the end of the day, 20 trailblazing women left Washington ready to do just that, with a renewed sense of passion and a close-knit network to help them work through the leadership challenges they face.

Interested in learning more about the Essential Women’s Leadership Academy or know a promising woman leader who would benefit? Read more on our website, or sign up to learn when applications open for the 2020 program.