It hasn’t gone unnoticed that several of the countries most admired for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic — New Zealand, Taiwan, Finland, Denmark — have one interesting thing in common. Female leaders.
This could of course just be coincidence. But the way the pandemic response in those countries has raised the profile of figures, like New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Taiwan President Tsai ing-Wen, has certainly reignited debates over the merits and effectiveness of female leadership.
Given the opportunity, are women naturally better equipped as leaders to cope with a healthcare crisis on the scale of COVID-19? Do the gender stereotypes that women are better communicators, better at building consensus and at offering ‘relational leadership’, stand up to scrutiny?
Is that why figures like Ardern and Tsai have performed so well in tackling the pandemic, because they have been able to win over the trust of the people they govern, pulling them together to take effective action?
Maybe, although such claims are difficult to prove and are sure to cause argument.
Levelling up opportunities in healthcare
What the prominence of women politicians in the pandemic response of some countries does allow us to do is re-examine the role of female leadership in general across different industries and sectors.
In healthcare, the picture remains disappointing at best. Globally, women remain woefully underrepresented in healthcare leadership positions. Research by analysts Oliver Wyman has found that women occupy just a third of senior leadership roles in healthcare and a tiny 13% of CEO positions.
What is more, it takes women three to five years longer than their male counterparts to reach boardroom level. And all of this despite the fact that women make up 65% of the healthcare workforce and, as consumers, are responsible for 80% of household buying decisions around healthcare.
It seems obvious to me that, in 2021, this is no longer a situation we can or should accept — that women make up the majority of the healthcare workforce and represent the largest market as healthcare consumers, yet remain a minority in health industry leadership roles.
So what needs to change to achieve equality? In its analysis, Oliver Wyman concluded that two of the most significant barriers in the way of women reaching the top in healthcare were outdated misconceptions (for example, men naturally make better leaders than women) and an uneven playing field in terms of career progression, such as men getting more sponsorship and mentoring opportunities.
It is clear that male leaders, who after all still hold the balance of power in healthcare, need to take responsibility. Male-dominated boardrooms need to commit to ensuring that equality and inclusion policies translate into action, not just words. They need to actively challenge misconceptions of female leadership, perhaps on a personal, individual level, and change the hiring structures that make it so much easier for men to climb the ladder.
Above all, they have to want change. That’s a challenge that every woman working in healthcare can put to their male colleagues.
Inspiration and support
But I am not in favor of saying that women should wait for opportunities to be handed to them by men. That somewhat defeats the objective. Women also have to take responsibility, using their skills and talents to beat hard on the locked boardroom door, not wait outside to be allowed in.
That echoes something Michelle Obama said about women in leadership — “So many of us have gotten ourselves at the table, but we’re still too grateful to be at the table to really shake it up.” Even getting through the door to sit at that table isn’t enough. Once there, female leaders need to act decisively to make sure the door remains wide open for plenty more to follow.
What this means is that women have to support each other to create a level playing field in healthcare leadership. Nothing is achieved alone. It means those that do reach the top should be confident enough to offer advice and mentorship to other women in the industry.
In an ideal world, of course, this support would be offered freely to men and women based on talent alone. But it’s clear there is some catching up to do to provide those kinds of pathways to women.
At the same time, women who aspire to reach the top in healthcare should use the example of those already there as inspiration that they can achieve their goals, too, whatever the obstacles in their way. There is no shortage of truly inspirational female figures in global healthcare, from Carilion Clinic President and CEO Nancy Howell Agee in the US to Emma Walmsley, CEO of UK pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKlein.
I also have an example of inspirational female leadership very close to my heart. My sister, Dr Nadine Hachach-Haram, is founder of Proximie, an AR and AI-based telehealth platform designed to connect surgeons remotely so they can collaborate on procedures and assessments.
My sister’s story shows there is another route to healthcare leadership apart from climbing the corporate ladder — launching your own healthcare business. Her example also disproves the assumption that men make better entrepreneurs, or that they have more aptitude when it comes to technology and innovation.
The fact that my sister has achieved all of this while still working as a practicing reconstructive surgeon in London and raising a family of 3 children, just further underlines what women can achieve in this industry!
We are living through a time of profound change in healthcare and perhaps in society in general. This International Women’s Day, it is my hope that the many millions of women who work in healthcare globally can resolve themselves to use this change to take their rightful place as leaders.