Why the Health Care Industry Needs Female Leaders

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Over a century ago, women were the founders, leaders and operators of hospitals across the U.S. Today, women are the majority of workers in the health care industry – but not in leadership positions. More women are needed in executive roles because their leadership will help health care organizations and the industry as a whole flourish through times of complex change.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by Bradley University’s Online Doctor of Nursing Practice program.

How women in health care leadership make a significantly positive impact in the industry.

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The Current Landscape: A Breakdown of Women in Health Care

Women make up 46.8% of the total labor force in the U.S. They also make up 78% of the health care work force. 68% of those in health care and pharmaceuticals occupy entry level roles, and 60% are in manager positions. Conversely, only 26% of women are in Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Chief Operations Officer (COO), and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) roles. Of these health care executive roles, 11.2% are CEOs, 17.3% are COOs, and 60% are Chief Nursing Officers (CNOs). Additionally, 22.6% of executive positions at Fortune 500 health care companies were held by women as of 2017.

What Defines a Health Care Leader?

Leadership in health care is represented by the ability to effectively influence and motivate others, think critically and solve complex problems while upholding the values of one’s organization. Several core competencies help shape this representation, including self-awareness, effective execution and performance, strong interpersonal relationship skills, and the ability to create and promote a compelling vision.

Women are Leaders: The Female Advantage

Having women in executive level positions consistently delivers substantially positive dividends. According to “The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards,” firms with women in top leadership positions are valued $42 million more than other firms. The report also indicated that women-led organizations are often more profitable. The Women on Boards study by MCSI found that companies with strong female leadership generated a 10.1% return on equity per year, compared with 7.4% for those without female leadership. Additionally, a global survey of 21,980 firms from 9 countries by the Peterson Institute for International Economics discovered that the presence of women in corporate leadership positions is associated with greater performance and profitability. Furthermore, according to the 2015-2016 UC Davis Study of California Women Business Leaders: A Census of Women Directors and Executive Officers, out of the 400 largest public companies in California, the top 25 companies with the highest percentages of women holding executive and board member positions had a 74 percent higher median return on assets and equity than the median for all companies surveyed. Finally, the 2015 McKinsey Global Institute paper “The power of parity: How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth” found that if every country were able to narrow the gender gap at the same rate as the country with the fastest improvement, the world’s annual gross domestic product would increase by $12 trillion by 2025.

Pressing Forward: Inspirational Female Leaders in Health Care

There are several women in health care leadership positions that serve as significant examples of crucial figures in the industry. One of those leaders is Karen Lynch, who serves as the President of Aetna. She became the first woman president of the 160-year-old company in 2015; in her role, she has strategic oversight of 95 percent of the company’s revenue streams.

Another strong female health care leader is Christine Candio, CEO of St. Luke’s Hospital in St. Louis. She climbed the corporate ladder to assume the CEO position – she began her career in health care as a nurse. Since taking over as CEO in 2015, she oversees St. Luke’s 493-bed hospital and more than two dozen care sites in St. Louis.

Moving east and into Kentucky, Ruth Brinkley serves as President/CEO of Kentuckyone Health. She’s credited with the successful rollout of KentuckyOne in 2012. She also brokered an agreement that made University of Louisville’s facilities affiliates of KentuckyOne.

Kaiser Permanente’s EVP/CFO, Kathy Lancaster, has held the position of CFO within the company since 2005. She’s responsible for the controller’s office, supply chain, treasury, capital planning, financial services and revenue cycle.

Finally, Judy Murphy serves as the Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) of IBM Global Healthcare. She’s developed a sterling reputation for patient advocacy and is committed to health information technology and mentoring women in health care throughout their careers. She’s also served as deputy national coordinator and CNO for programs and policy at the Office of the National Coordinator.

Factors that Can Help Put More Women in Health Care Leadership Positions

There are several steps that women and men can take to help more women ascend to leadership roles in care. For instance, both genders should feel confident and empowered to call attention to gender biases in the workplace. There should also be assessments of health organizations that include metrics designed to evaluate gender parity. Additionally, school and university classrooms need to reflect gender balance in leadership and faculty. Finally, women in charge can hire more women, thus increasing gender equality by hiring female leaders.


Women are an important component of health care in the U.S. As the data shows, having women in charge helps organizations become more successful and profitable. Increasing gender equity also serves as an inspiration for future generations, resulting in more opportunities for women to be leaders.