Women and men are inherently different.
Men are better negotiators, more confident, and more likely to take risks. Women, on the other hand, are better team players and are more mission-driven.
We’ve heard these sentiments so many times — and for so long — that they’ve become widely accepted as facts. The reality, according to a Harvard Business Review, is that there are differences between men and women. “But they’re not rooted in fixed gender traits,” it states. “Rather, they stem from organizational structures, company practices, and patterns of interaction that position men and women differently, creating systematically different experiences for them.”
In other words, the reason women occupy fewer leadership roles in fields like healthcare IT is more about nurture, and less about nature. It can be a very discouraging thing to hear. But it also can be inspiring, according to Women in Health IT Leadership panelists, who believe it’s time to move past the (justified) anger many women feel and work to forge change.
Recently we spoke with three influential women about the challenges they’ve faced in their careers, what they consider to be core competencies for female leaders, and why diverse representation is so critical in today’s environment. The panelists — Sarah Richardson, California Market CIO, Healthcare Partners; Julie Bonello, CIO, Rush Health; and Tressa Springmann, CIO, LifeBridge Health — also share their thoughts on how to encourage a healthy work/life balance, how to build a safe culture, why mentoring matters so much, and the discussion that needs to happen on a wider scale.
- M&A reality – “I don’t see female CIOs getting the top jobs.”
- Calling on professional associations to further the discussion
- Benefits of the “female mindset of entrepreneurship”
- Job satisfaction – “It allows us to do greater things.”
- Moving past the anger
- “We want the role because we’ve earned it.”
- Looking ahead: “We need to lead with grace and safety and equity.”
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I believe some of the technical complexities that have come to the advent with telehealth and cybersecurity really require the rigor of a technologist and a leader, at least in the CIO role.
The purpose behind blockchain is to protect what’s yours — that really takes more of a female mindset of entrepreneurialism. ‘Why do you do that? What’s the purpose behind it?’ It’s interesting to find a space where women have a greater footprint.
It’s really how we’re not separate — how we really need to combine all the perspectives and embrace all the different capabilities so that we have the right kind of leadership in our organizations.
We’re not just talking about it, we’re bringing solutions and ideas forward. We’re talking about it and we’re acting on it. When you bring these things together with individuals who should have a shared purpose, you really do start to see amazing things come out of that.
Springmann: I absolutely agree with the optimism expressed by the other speakers, but I actually see something different happening specific to healthcare. With all the mergers and consolidations we’re seeing, I don’t see female CIOs getting the top jobs. I feel as though about five years ago there was a real sweet spot where we were seeing a tremendous uptick and a little more parity in the role. At this point, I’m seeing that in reverse. It’s very interesting to watch.
Bonello: I agree.
Springmann: I love all the new opportunities, and I actually believe some of the technical complexities that have come to the advent with telehealth and cybersecurity really require the rigor of a technologist and a leader, at least in the CIO role — unless they’re really well-partnered with a very specialized CTO. Honestly, I don’t know what’s going on. I can make assumptions, but through the M&A process, I’m not seeing females getting the top jobs.
Springmann: It’s interesting. I agree with you, and I think the way I’ve subconsciously thought it through is just a repackaging for female leaders. Because I agree, and I don’t know that it’s not because there aren’t very good highly technical female leaders.
Richardson: There are fewer women CEOs than ever before. There’s been a drop, universally, and I’m not sure there’s a magic bullet. It’s just troubling to see.
Bonello: In healthcare, we’re also seeing a big swing for physician-led CIOs — not that it wouldn’t include women, but it’s interesting to see how things are changing.
Springmann: I would say the pendulum is swinging on that one as well. The era of EMR isn’t quite behind us — we still have a lot to do — but when you’re talking about infrastructure modernization and things that are operational but aren’t just medical stuff, revenue cycle, etc., that takes a unique clinician who really wants to spend their time in that space. So I’m not sure what’s going on, but I hope it’s something we can bring to the surface and make sure the associations we’re part of are trying to be more intentional. Because if there are good reasons for this to be happening, then it becomes an opportunity for us as females to adjust and adapt, if that’s what’s required. I just don’t know the ‘why.’
Bonello: I think the next question is, there’s a ton of work in terms of care delivery and really figuring out the operational workflows and all that’s included in making care delivery across a continuum work. What’s that going to look like? How will the jobs change?
Gamble: It does need to be brought to the attention of the associations, because this is a big issue. The M&A trend has been absolutely huge; health systems are getting bigger and there are fewer of them, and if women aren’t being represented in the CIO role, that’s definitely a problem. As Tressa said, if there are adjustments that need to be made, let’s get it out in the open and figure it out. I think it will be important to approach organizations like CHIME and get these discussions going on a wider scale.
Bonello: I think it would be great. I always joke about Sheryl Sandberg’s Leaning In book that if I lean in anymore, I’m going to fall on my face. We need organizations to lean in more than halfway — that way, women leaning in will be successful.
Richardson: It is fair to note, though, that a lot of the new blockchain and cybersecurity companies that are popping up tend to have more female leaders than male leaders — it’s a trend that was pointed out at a recent HIMSS conference. Tamara St. Claire brought it up, and I asked, ‘Why do you think that that is?’ And she said it’s because the purpose behind blockchain is to protect what’s yours — that really takes more of a female mindset of entrepreneurialism. ‘Why do you do that? What’s the purpose behind it?’ It’s interesting to find a space where women have a greater footprint than men from a technology leadership perspective.
Julie: It’s interesting — it comes back to what Sarah said earlier about forming an LLC because she was protecting her career.
Gamble: I agree. That was very relatable. Well, we have to wrap things up soon, and so I want to open the floor for any final thoughts. I know we talked about a lot, and some of it may have been more ‘glass is half-empty,’ but there are also a lot of great opportunities out there. Just looking at this panel, there are fantastic roles for women leaders in health IT. Any closing thoughts?
Bonello: I’ll just jump in to say that when we think about the women leaders, it’s really how we’re not separate — how we really need to combine all the perspectives and embrace all the different capabilities so that we have the right kind of leadership in our organizations. I’m always somewhat hesitant to separate women out, because I don’t want to be separate. I want everyone to work together.
Richardson: We did our personal credos recently at work, and someone had asked me, ‘why do you do what you do?’ And I said, ‘I do it because I love it. I love to be able to help others be successful and be a champion, obviously for females in IT, but also for female executives in general.’ And I said, ‘if I didn’t love what I was doing anymore, I would stop doing it. I’d find something else.’ When you are personally and professionally happy in the space that you’re in, it allows us to do greater things and to solve these types of problems.
So I applaud you for having us talk about this topic. And we’re not just talking about it, we’re bringing solutions and ideas forward. We’re talking about it and we’re acting on it. When you bring these things together with individuals who should have a shared purpose, you really do start to see amazing things come out of that. And so I’m more confident than ever about where we stand with females in technology and in the leadership positions, because it is something that’s important to us. We’re fostering that talent in our own organizations, and we’re not just helping women to be at the table — we’re providing coaching points on how to work with our male counterparts to make all of those scenarios successful. So I’m optimistic about where we’re headed, but I know it’s up to us. As Sheryl Sandberg says in Lean In, ‘if not you, then who?’ and ‘if not now, then when?’
Springmann: I think these are amazing insights that my peers have shared. We’ve all been in these circumstances. We’ve read things. We’ve experienced things. There’s a very real right for anger around treatment and equity and interpretation and feeling like your ideas are stolen, or you’re the one being asked to photocopy or take notes or bring the coffee. I can tell you story after story where vendors walked in and faced all my male teammates with their backs to me, thinking I was just facilitating the room dynamics. But that isn’t going to get us very far, even though we have that right. We’ve got to be very delicate about how we navigate the issue. Because to the point made earlier, we want the role because we’ve earned it, not because we’re a quota. We want the best person in the role — that’s the most important thing. And so we need to lead with grace and safety and equity. And although that anger can flare up, there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity. My recommendation to other women in this space is to keep going, because it is possible, and it is doable, but we have to make sure we don’t allow anger and attitude to overburden us. We have to move past it, and we’re the ones that need to catalyze that change.
Gamble: Really great points, all around. I think that’s the perfect way to wrap this up. I think this is going to make for some really great content, and hopefully generate discussions and to really drive change. I want to thank you all so much. We really appreciate you taking the time to talk.