It happens every time I see one of those lists honoring the top women or minorities in healthcare. I have two reactions that are at completely odds with one another.
The first: why is this necessary? The year is 2017, not 1967. One of the most successful health IT vendors in the world (Epic) is run by a woman. The CMS administrator is a woman. IBM’s CEO? Yup, a woman. Some of the largest health systems in the country have women in key leadership roles. So isn’t it time to ditch the ‘top women leaders’ and just acknowledge the top leaders?
In an ideal world, yes.
That brings me to my second reaction, which is that the industry does need to identify and celebrate women and people of color who have risen through the ranks, because they’re still the exception, not the rule.
It’s an interesting dichotomy, particularly for someone who has never had trouble formulating an opinion (just ask my husband). When it comes to the issue of whether to highlight the achievements of women in the field, rather than people in the field, I have conflicting feelings, and I’m not the only one.
A few weeks ago, I held a preliminary call with Laishy Williams-Carlson, CIO at Bon Secours Health System, in preparation for our interview. When she initially suggested it, I was more than happy to oblige, as I believe both parties are more comfortable during a discussion if they’ve had some time to get to know each other first (Laishy and I have never met in person). As we went through the list of sample topics I had provided, there was one that gave her pause: how more women can advance to leadership roles.
“I’m not sure I’m the best person to talk about this,” said Williams-Carlson. When I asked her why, she confessed that for many years, she preferred to avoid the topic altogether, and didn’t see the value in health IT events focused only on women. “I don’t want to be a great woman CIO. I want to be a great CIO,” she remarked. But then a few years ago, her feelings changed.
As she went on to explain, I became more and more convinced that she was, indeed, the perfect person to address this topic.
In the third part of our interview, which was published earlier this week, Williams-Carlson opens up about the “evolution” she’s had when it comes to the leader’s role in helping to advance women. The pivotal moment came shortly after her promotion to corporate CIO in 2014, when several different women approached her expressing how proud they were to be part of an organization that had groomed a female CIO.
Williams-Carlson was touched, and decided it was time for a different approach (which, I believe, is the mark of a great leader). So she embraced her inner role model, making it a point to conduct one-on-one conversations with female team members, and even agreeing to speak at conferences focused on women in technology. “My thinking around it has evolved, ironically, as I’ve matured,” she said. “I used to minimize the issues of being a woman executive and a woman in technology; now I’m more readily acknowledging that there are challenges and unique things we face as females.”
Those challenges, however, certainly aren’t unique to Bon Secours. Whether it’s having to deal with sexist attitudes (or worse – see Matt Lauer), or grappling with work-life balance issues, there are issues that affect women more deeply. And while it can be tempting to sidestep these uncomfortable topics, those leaders who are willing to embrace them by creating a platform for discussion are doing their teams a great service.
At the recent CHIME Fall Forum, I attended the Women in IT networking luncheon, and the appreciation for an event that focused on difficult conversations was tangible. Through guided discussions and impromptu chats, attendees shared stories about how they overcame various obstacles. I walked away with several new contacts, as well as a renewed appreciation for those who paved the way, and a resolve to help smooth the road for future leaders.
And so, although I’m still not 100 percent sold on the idea of lists, I’m all for doing whatever it takes to help more women break into elite groups.