Advice from the Top: Women Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Healthcare

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female administrator having a meeting with nurses

For decades, hospitals, medical centers, and healthcare businesses across the United States have thrived on a primarily female workforce, except in top executive positions. Even today, women make up a majority of healthcare personnel but account for only a fraction of senior leadership.

However, the tide is slowly turning. Female healthcare executives have noticed an increased focus on gender diversity and female voices on the executive level. Women are taking a front-and-center role in the future of healthcare leadership.

“Nowadays, a female leader’s voice is understood as being part of the diversity of thought that makes companies successful. The value that a female leader brings into a non-traditionally female world is now being recognized and actively sought out at both leadership and board levels,” Jamie Nelson, senior vice president and chief information officer at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, said in “50 hospital C-level execs share advice, innovations, 2020 predictions and more.”

An essential component of working in a C-suite role in earning a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree, which demonstrates a mastery of professional practice and expertise in clinical knowledge. Registered nurses (RNs) who take an online DNP program learn what being means and the role of female leadership in healthcare.

Women Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Across the United States, women have been working toward advanced roles. A study by the consulting group Oliver Wyman found gender diversity brings greater innovation, more creative problem solving, and stronger financial outcomes.

The study, Women in Healthcare Leadership 2019, found that healthcare executives see the need for gender diversity in leadership but struggle to understand why it is not happening. The problem, the study found, is that the industry has a “change management problem.”

While more than 60% of entry-level healthcare positions are filled by women, only about 30% of women land in C-suite roles. Only 13% of work as healthcare CEOs.

The study said the path forward includes such as:

  • Boldly stepping up an organization’s commitment to hiring and promoting women. Bold steps include challenging diversity programs to ensure they are meeting specific objectives and setting attainable goals for accountability.
  • Purposefully balancing the uneven playing field. The Oliver Wyman study found gender imbalance in the workplace occurs for two reasons: Men are more proactive in seeking mentors or sponsors, while women believe results speak for themselves and view mentors and sponsors as nepotism. Also, predominately male leadership typically forms bonds, leading to more opportunities for personal relationships.
  • Expressly addressing misperceptions and building new habits. Create a safe space for employees to develop a shared understanding of why women are not in leading positions and how to remove roadblocks. Commit to actions that will lead to more inclusivity.

The Oliver Wyman study said it typically takes women three to five years longer than men to achieve CEO status.

Advice from Women Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Healthcare

Women who have achieved leadership roles said the rise to the top might include roadblocks, but they are not insurmountable. The following women have some advice:

Claire Verity, CEO of UnitedHealthcare, Pacific Northwest States

Verity told Seattle Business her success came with assistance from a good mentor who helped navigate challenges to achieve common goals.

She said women should unapologetically act as their own advocates, using their voice, opinions, and experiences to shape the future.

“Make sure the culture of the company you work with reflects the promotion of gender diversity, not just a check-the-box exercise but something that truly demonstrates how its culture, policy, and behaviors reflect an inclusive environment. If it doesn’t, drive the change that is needed. Complacency is our biggest challenge,” Verity said.

Karen S. Lynch, executive vice president of CVS Health and president of Aetna

Lynch, like Verity, said her success began with assistance from a mentor who moved her to critical jobs and steered her career path in the right direction. Lynch said authenticity is vital to success.

Lynch said the future of female leadership in healthcare includes having women in the pipeline to move into critical roles. More professionals have to step forward to act as mentors to prepare the younger generation to move into the C-suite, she said. Her advice for up-and-coming female leaders is simple:

“Be courageous—seek experiences outside of your comfort zone. Take risks and try unique and different roles, because it can really propel your career.”

Paula Steiner, President, and CEO of Health Care Service Corp.

Steiner, who oversees Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans in five states, said changing the male-dominated culture in healthcare is a multidecade journey. She said it is not enough to just accept that the pipeline of quality female leadership candidates is broken.

“The reality is that pipelines spring leaks all the time. One reason is they’re built out of shoddy materials, and I don’t accept that rationale. Clearly, we have the right materials going in. But pipelines can be influenced by their environment. And you can have really hostile environments that create cracks in pipelines. In business we call that culture,” Steiner said.

Education First for Female Leadership in Healthcare

The first essential step for anyone pursuing a career in healthcare leadership is learning skills for today and the future. Through Duquesne University’s online DNP program, RNs take part in experiential learning opportunities that broaden perspectives and sharpen an understanding of challenges in healthcare.

The DNP program is aimed at honing skills to shape the future of nursing and healthcare. Coursework includes healthcare policy and finance, ethical leadership, and transcultural perspective.

About Duquesne University’s Online DNP Program

Duquesne University’s online DNP program provides a terminal nursing education that prepares students for the

Duquesne University, a leader in nursing education, offers three DNP tracks:

  • Clinical Leadership DNP
  • Post-Bachelor’s Executive Nurse Leadership DNP
  • Post-Master’s Executive Nurse Leadership DNP

Duquesne University’s online DNP program provides one-on-one faculty mentorships and a 100 percent online curriculum with flexible course offerings. The university’s School of Nursing is frequently recognized as an educational leader, most recently as a “Best Online Graduate Nursing Programs” by U.S. News & World Report.


Healthcare Leaders, Women in Healthcare Don’t Make It To Executive Or C-Suite Level
Oliver Wyman, Women In Healthcare Leadership 2019
Becker’s Health IT & CIO Report, 50 hospital C-level execs share advice, innovations, 2020 predictions and more
Seattle Business, Daring Women Q&A: Claire Verity, CEO of UnitedHealthcare, Pacific Northwest States
Korn Ferry, Aetna’s Karen S. Lynch oversees a $60 billion portion of the nation’s healthcare system
Crain’s Chicago Business, The Most Powerful Women In Chicago Business