How can female leadership advance in the global healthcare workforce?

Date:  14 September 2022

“We all know that having a seat at the table and having a voice at the table can be very different things.”  

Deborah J. Bowen, IHF President and President/CEO American College of Healthcare Executives 

Women make up 70% of the healthcare workforce (43 million employees worldwide)1 but they are underrepresented in senior leadership roles. Data reveals the scale of the challenge, however, there is limited evidence on effective, practical organizational policies and approaches to overcome this issue. To identify impactful systems-wide solutions, it is important to develop a clear understanding of the issues and contextual factors that create this inequity.

On 1 September 2022, the International Hospital Federation’s Women in Leadership Forum hosted a webinar in collaboration with Alumni Global: Turning challenges into leadership opportunities. In this exchange on the issues female healthcare leaders face, the panel of speakers shared personal experiences and practical advice on the actions needed to build a more equitable, inclusive workplace.

Deliberate, proactive and targeted ways of advancing more women into senior roles

“Equality often fails to consider the factors at play for women, which often mean that equality is not possible without recognizing that structural inequality, particularly as it relates to gender, already exists. It’s already there. It’s already limiting. And so an equitable approach is needed instead.”

Owen Francis, Director, Higher Education and Group Inclusion Lead, Alumni Global, UK

To achieve equity requires moving beyond fixing the individual, or micro approaches, towards organizational, systems-wide solutions to ensure that women have the same starting point as men on the career pathway.

Examples of systemic challenges:

  • Role of existing leadership: not proactively asking why, as a senior leadership team, the room is not representative; discriminatory attitudes in managers; avoidance of uncomfortable conversations; reluctance to collect and share the data
  • Workplace culture: inadequate work-life integration; inflexible policies; insufficient parental leave; lack of on-site child assistance

Examples of systemic solutions:

  • Recognizing the challenge: collect gender information comprehensively and transparently
  • Workplace culture: better work-life integration policies; flexible and parent-friendly working hours; part-time leadership roles; support for menopausal women; policies to prevent burnout
  • Creating opportunities: investing in mentoring and leadership development programmes; greater access to institutional resources; promote female role models
Learnings to take to heart and into the workplace  

“There’s something about leadership that starts very young for many people who just want to serve. Leading can be about a lot of things to different people and bringing intention to it can never steer you wrong. In a leadership construct that is male, it’s about winning or being at the top. Many women don’t need to be at the top. They want to contribute.” 

Dr Jackie Schleifer Taylor, President/CEO,  London Health Sciences Centre, Canada 

Five pieces of reflective advice based on Dr Jackie’s personal experience throughout her career:

  1. Always be deliberate in seeking and applying your experiences: forcing yourself outside your comfort zone every five years to avoid denying yourself the breadth of experiences that become so important. Recognize when diverse experiences have value, even if not conventional on a typical leadership path.
  2. Be your authentic self: Well-meaning advice on how to change to present yourself as ready to lead in an organizational culture can be disruptive and make it more difficult for you to respond to successes or failures. Being authentic also brings an opportunity for the health system you are part of to see the diversity (of expression, of thought, of response) that exists.
  3. Ensure there is intentionality and self-agency in your career: be aware of the boundaries so that others do not set your path and identify the roles that they believe will suit you – do not let advice alter your own goals.
  4. Women have to sponsor other women into leadership roles: there is an obligation to actively create space for the voices of others, and to recognize when invisibility or contribution barriers are at play. Going beyond mentorship, there is a need to create opportunities for sponsorship.
  5. Perfection is unattainable: it is necessary to recognize that mistakes will be made on the path to achieving your goals, and it is important to have empathy with yourself when things go wrong.
Develop your effective, purposeful, and authentic leadership style 

Inequity in leadership is not unique to the healthcare industry. For example, in the airline industry, which is also a safety-based, high-pressure environment, the data has not significantly altered since the 1980s. Only 5% of the world’s pilots were women, and only 1.42% of the world’s airline captains are women.2

Captain Emma Henderson MBE shared her advice for developing the right skills for leadership in any industry.

  • Identify the characteristics and behaviours of two leaders that you enjoy working with, and those of two leaders that you do not. Model your own leadership approach on the leaders you admire.
  • Tackle the common problem of imposter syndrome. Women often focus on sharing credit, but achievements through hard work deserve to be recognized. Women need to accept the acknowledgements of their achievements with grace and humility, but they do have to accept them.
  • Think about who, where, or what is your safe space that you turn to when you are faced with a challenge and need support. Remember that you do not have to do everything yourself, it is ok to ask for and to accept help.
  • Find an empowerment mantra that works for you in moments that require a demonstration of leadership. Force yourself to voice that you deserve to be there, and you know what you’re doing.
  • Learn to deal with your emotions when things go wrong. Be open with trusted colleagues and friends about the situation – lean into failure as a way of overcoming it. It is what you do after failure that counts most: take ownership and move on – allow it to refine you, not define you.

“As a pilot, I learned how to lead my team every day with integrity, humility, passion, and authenticity. In my leadership, the key skills are communication, flexibility, empowering others, and doing the right thing. These skills were learned as a fully qualified but inexperienced co-pilot. In all the years I spent as a captain, I kept on developing my leadership style.”  

Captain Emma Henderson MBE, former airline pilot and Co-Founder, Project Wingman Foundation, UK 

With thanks to Frank McKenna, Global Managing Director, Healthcare and Higher Education, Alumni Global, UK, for chairing an inspiring panel discussion.

The conversation will continue through activities of the IHF’s Women in Leadership Forum. In the words of Dr Jackie: “we won’t catch up unless we accelerate this agenda”.



The full webinar is available for catch-up viewing,

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