The gender leadership gap is well established and well known. However, it differs across industries. In health care, women are notably underrepresented in leadership roles; they represent 65 percent of the overall workforce but only 30 percent of the C-suite and 13 percent of CEO roles, according to Oliver Wyman research.

500 Women In Medicine notes this problem as well. The nonprofit is a satellite organization of 500 Women Scientists and, according to its founder, Kate Gerull, “it is needed because we continue to lose women at every stage of the promotion and advancement pipeline in medicine.” While both genders have been roughly equally represented among medical students for the last two decades, only 38 percent of medical school faculty, 23 percent of full professors and 16 percent of deans are women.

Why Does It Matter?

This gap is even more troubling, says Terry Stone, managing partner of Oliver Wyman’s health and life sciences practice group, because women make 80 percent of the buying and usage decisions when it comes to health care. “We don’t have a ‘women in health care’ problem,” she says, “but a ‘women in health care leadership’ problem.”

The problem is prevalent throughout the health care industry, as Claire Novorol, co-founder of Ada Health, notes in a recent Forbes article. She cites data showing that 9 percent of “healthtech” (health care technology) startups are founded by women, and only 11 percent of healthtech company partners are women. “Diversity in healthtech is also essential for reasons beyond commercial self-interest. It is vital to ensuring that we are getting the right medical outcomes,” she writes. Ensuring that research includes diverse groups will help ensure that products, services and treatments are successful for diverse populations. In addition, as AI continues to permeate the industry, diverse teams will make “it more likely that unconscious biases will be recognised and addressed, rather than encoded within the next generation of AI technologies.”

“Gender balance helps institutions to reflect the populations they serve and improves health outcomes,” write researchers in a recent issue of “The Lancet” focused on women in medicine. They recommend “public promotion of gender equality in the workplace,” strong policies on discrimination and harassment, gender-specific leadership training, peer mentoring, and flexible work policies to address this issue.

Engaging Women Throughout the Pipeline

Recent research by Linkage Inc. holds some insights to help bridge the gap. Providing leadership training that differentially invests in women not only helps the women participating in the training but women across the organization as well. “For women to be in an organization and just see that their company is investing in the advancement of women impacts them, whether they participate in it or not,” says Jill Ihsanullah, senior vice president of consulting at Linkage. In addition, these women are more likely to recommend their organization to others based on that investment than they are based on other benefits or HR policies.

Women who believe their organization supports them are also 16 times more likely to be in an environment “where women receive consistent feedback and coaching,” Ihsanullah adds. Stone, too, says that sponsors and mentors play an important role in helping women in health care advance. Unfortunately, “women have a reported 2.5 mentors, compared to 3.7 for men,” and “at the very top of leadership rankings, men are generally the ones making the leadership selections,” which generally means selecting other men, whom they’ve built stronger relationships with.

“Smart people, both men and women, struggle with addressing the female leadership gap,” Stone adds. “Marginalization is usually unintentional, by people who mean well. New habits need to form that shape our future mindsets.” These habits include “purposely balancing the mentoring and sponsorship playing field and being unafraid to communicate openly about misperceptions.”

Recent Training Industry research found that while formal coaching can even the playing field between men and women, women are less likely to prefer coaching as a development tool. Stone believes that for coaching to be engaging, the organization must understand that “many women identify as being a caregiver over an executive. Being coached as a female implies being part of a team that extends well beyond a single person’s needs. Coaching helps identify very subtle behaviors that may hold women back in their careers. But this kind of caregiver lens can certainly help change the status quo.”

Once women advance, give them opportunities “to create networks with each other,” Ihsanullah says. “Because women tend to be so focused on their work and getting their job done, they tend to de-emphasize relationship-building.” Making that networking easier will help women to build those relationships, learn from each other, serve as role models and give each other lifts up the ladder.

One initiative 500 Women In Medicine is working on is giving more visibility to female experts and leaders in medicine. By creating a database of women in medicine, the organization hopes to increase the number of women used as sources in the media and asked to speak at conferences. Health care organizations should use this strategy internally, as well: “Successful organizations not only recruit talented and diverse individuals,” Gerull says, “but they actively foster and showcase these individuals’ skills, talents and abilities.”

The bottom line? “Make diversity a top, purposeful priority,” says Stone. Identify your success metrics, and track them. Provide training, coaching and mentoring, and networking opportunities. Ensure managers are providing good feedback and are unbiased in their promotion and advancement decisions. By creating a culture where women feel – and are – valued and developed, health care organizations can impact not only their employees but also their customers and patients.