Women in Health Care Leadership: Past, Present and Future

A health care administrator talks with a nurse leader in a boardroom.

The health care industry impacts people across the nation and around the world. The industry has evolved over the years, due in part to the technological advancements that have improved patient care, treatment follow-up and other important issues. Women in health care leadership have seen progress — but there’s still a long way to go to achieve gender parity.

In the past, health care was a male-dominated field without much room for women to advance. Although the playing field continues to shift, women still struggle to break through to the higher levels of health care. That power dynamic is particularly interesting because women tend to be the primary decision-makers when it comes to health and the care they and their family members receive. Although women play an active role on the receiving side of health care, they are still underrepresented in the industry’s leadership roles.

Women in Health Care: History and Overview

There is a long history of women in health care being underrepresented. For example, when the Affordable Care Act was being debated in Washington, the Senate majority made a decision to create a working group on health care. This group included 13 men but no women, which disturbed many of the women who had been working tirelessly to overcome the gender disparity in the industry. It was especially surprising considering that Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, worked in health care for many years, including spending five years overseeing the Bureau of Insurance. However, the committee’s makeup only furthered what many women had been saying about the health care industry for years.

As small shifts take place in individual health care organizations, changes may come on a larger scale. The number of women serving in CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies as of March 2022 increased by 80% since June 2021 (and increased tenfold since 2002), according to the World Economic Forum. While this still only represents an inequitably small 8% of all Fortune 500 companies, these numbers can continue to grow as women bring their expertise and innovations to health care companies across the globe.

Far from Gender Parity

While some industries have seen significant growth among women in leadership positions, the health care industry continues to move slowly. Since 2015, the number of women serving in executive roles in this industry has remained fairly low. According to a study by JAMA Network Open, just 15.3% of health system CEOs were women in 2021. The same study found that only 15.8% of health insurance company CEOs were women.

Women in health care leadership still face cultural bias. In the U.S., only 8% of CEO positions across Fortune 500 companies were held by women in 2021, as reported by Becker’s Hospital Review. The same report found that of S&P 500 companies, only 6% percent of CEO roles were held by women. With low representation comes the mistaken perception that women can’t or shouldn’t lead.

Taking Steps to Diversify Leadership Works

Organizations with diversity and inclusion programs in place tend to boost the number of women who are promoted or brought on board to fill higher-level positions.

The study published in JAMA Network Open found that women CEOs tended to lead companies driven by a board of directors made up of a higher proportion of women when compared to other boards. Additionally, increased representation of women CEOs correlated with a higher proportion of women on senior executive teams at health insurance groups. The study found that women filled somewhere between 20% and 50% of executive leadership positions (not just CEO) in health insurance groups and health systems.

Women Executives in Health Care: Benefits and Challenges

Women executives in health care know full well that the job comes with benefits and obstacles.

Benefits of Women Leaders in Health Care

Women perform well in multiple aspects of leadership that are critical to the health care industry.
For example, a 2021 study by McKinsey & Company and Leanin.org found that within 423 companies across the U.S. and Canada, women were better than men at:

  • Providing emotional support to employees: 19% of men compared with 31% of women
  • Considering the well-being of employees: 54% of men compared with 61% of women
  • Helping employees navigate work-life challenges: 24% of men compared with 29% of women
  • Intervening to prevent or deal with employee burnout: 16% of men compared with 21% of women
  • Leading and supporting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts: 7% of men compared with 11% of women

Through these and many other traits of transformative leaders, women can lead health care organizations that are efficient, effective and equitable.

Exploring the Challenges in Health Care

A number of complex challenges face women in health care leadership who want to advance their careers. One of the most difficult obstacles to overcome is what is referred to as the “double bind” of how women are evaluated for C-level positions. This double bind refers to the fact that women are judged not only on their achievements and technical abilities but also on how well their image and performance match what the company believes a female leader should be.

Some of the current leaders in the industry have an implicit bias against females in leadership positions because of the way things have always been in health care. Many of the expectations of leaders are influenced and defined by males. When women are promoted to higher-level positions, they often work in service-oriented functions rather than strategic and operational functions.

The women who aspire to lead in a health care organization must take action. Furthering one’s education is an important step, which can bring new opportunities, insights and connections in the field. Women should also create a comprehensive strategy to maximize their capacity for leadership, focusing on:

  • Aligning the strategic direction of the organization with their individual goals
  • Developing the strengths needed to be a leader
  • Remembering the dynamic nature of health care, which seeks innovative leaders who can boost the bottom line while delivering better care

With a clear strategy in place and a degree that shows their commitment and knowledge, women can break through the traditional roles and achieve greater success in health care leadership.

The Future of Women in Health Care

Women in health care leadership positions strengthen their organizations. On average, studies like those by McKinsey & Company suggest that women lead in ways that improve employee retention, prevent employee burnout and save organizational time and resources.

Women who are looking to further their education to find jobs in health care leadership should consider an executive MHA like that offered at USC Price. The courses are designed to help students prepare to address pressing industry issues, such as quality of care, allocating health care dollars across generations, controlling costs and ensuring that residents have access to care.

The health care field needs leaders who understand how care delivery is evolving and transforming to adapt to the technological advancements propelling the industry forward. An Executive Master of Health Administration degree from USC Price can help students build the leadership skills they need to achieve their goals. Find out how the EMHA program can help students gain the knowledge and experience they need to reinvent the health care industry.


Recommended Reading:

7 Key Traits of Transformative Leaders

What Is an Executive Master of Health Administration Degree?



Becker’s Hospital Review, “Women Hold Only 15% of CEO Roles in Healthcare Organizations”

Forbes, “Eight Powerful Examples of Women in Leadership (and What We Can All Learn from Them)”

Forbes, “Healthcare Industry Still Lacks Inclusivity and Accessibility: These 7 Female Leaders Are Here to Change That”

Forbes, “New Study on Women in Leadership: Good News, Bad News and the Way Forward”

JAMA Network Open, “Representation of Women in the Leadership Structure of the US Health Care System”

McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace 2021

World Economic Forum, “How Has the Number of Female CEOs in Fortune 500 Companies Changed Over the Last 20 Years?”