Women Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Healthcare

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Doctor of Nursing Practice

A healthcare administrator talks with medical staff.

For decades, hospitals, medical centers, and healthcare businesses across the United States have thrived relying on a primarily female workforce. Despite this, the higher up the chain of command you go in healthcare organizations, the fewer women are represented.

This discrepancy and the reasons why it exists are no longer being ignored. As the focus on gender diversity and female voices at the executive level increases, women breaking the glass ceiling are becoming more common. In healthcare, this means that women are uniquely poised to take a more prominent role in the future of healthcare leadership.

For many, an essential component of working in a C-suite role is earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree, which demonstrates a mastery of professional practice and expertise in clinical knowledge. Registered nurses (RNs) who pursue an online DNP program can be fully prepared to successfully take on the challenges associated with leadership roles in healthcare.

What Is the Glass Ceiling?

The “glass ceiling” is a metaphor representing an unseen barrier that prohibits specific individuals from reaching high-level roles within an organization or an industry. The term is most commonly applied to women and minorities who struggle to advance in professional roles dominated by white men.

Various unwritten rules and assumptions keep the glass ceiling intact. These can take the form of long-accepted social norms or implicit biases that are not addressed by corporate policies. Because they are so thoroughly ingrained in society, these elements that support the glass ceiling can be difficult to overcome.

How to Break the Glass Ceiling

Across the United States, women have been working toward advanced roles. This push can yield a wide range of unique benefits for organizations. These advantages include access to a wider talent pool, enhanced productivity, better staff retention, and greater profitability.

A 2020 report put together by McKinsey & Company demonstrated this dynamic. While women occupy 66% of healthcare’s entry-level roles, they represent 59% of manager roles. This percentage drops to 49% in senior management positions and drops further as the chain of commands ascends — 41% in vice president roles, 34% in senior vice president roles, and 30% in C-suite roles.

Still, there has been progress. According to McKinsey & Company, the percentage of women in healthcare at each level is higher than the percentage of women across all industries at the same levels.

There is a process behind shattering the glass ceiling and bringing about proper equity to healthcare’s highest levels. According to the Oliver Wyman study Women in Healthcare Leadership 2019,

The path forward includes steps 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 leaders typically form bonds with each other, leading to their having more opportunities for personal relationships.
  • Expressly addressing misperceptions and building new habits. Organizations can create a safe space for employees to develop a shared understanding of why women are not in leading positions and how to remove roadblocks. They can also commit to actions that will lead to more inclusivity.

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

Claire Verity told Seattle Business that her success came with assistance from a good mentor who helped her 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

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

Lynch said having women in leadership is important because women help organizations to better understand their customers and their communities. This can ultimately help an organization connect with people within a community that may otherwise go unnoticed.

Lynch specifically cites the healthcare industry as one that’s poised for robust opportunities for women. “I remind women who are coming up through the ranks that 94 percent of healthcare decisions are made by women,” she said. “With that as the backdrop, there is no better gender to understand our marketplace. We can walk in the shoes of those individuals that are buying healthcare.”

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

Paula Steiner, who oversees Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans in five states, said changing the male-dominated culture in healthcare will require 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.

The Future of Healthcare Is in Your Hands

In healthcare, breaking the glass ceiling means promoting women to positions where they have the opportunity to dramatically shape one of the most vital industries in the world — an industry whose very goal is to improve people’s health and well-being.

Duquesne University’s online Doctor of Nursing Practice program can help you develop the knowledge and skills you need to make a difference in the world of care delivery. The program is designed to help you gain expertise in the intricacies of healthcare and care delivery systems, so you can confidently handle the challenges of evolving healthcare industry. Learn how Duquesne’s DNP program can help you play an important role in the future of healthcare. 

Recommended Readings

DNP vs. NP: Comparing Career Paths in Nursing

Finding a Work-Life Balance as a Nurse Leader

Nursing Career Paths and Advancement Guide


Crain’s Chicago Business, “The Most Powerful Women in Chicago Business”

HealthLeaders, “Women in Healthcare Don’t Make It to Executive or C-Suite Level”

Investopedia, “Glass Ceiling”

Leaders, “Purpose-Driven: An Interview with Karen S. Lynch, President, Aetna”

LinkedIn, “7 Benefits of Gender Diversity in a Workplace”

McKinsey & Company, “Women in Healthcare: Moving from the Front Lines to the Top Rung”

Oliver Wyman, Women in Healthcare Leadership 2019

Seattle Business, “Daring Women Q&A: Claire Verity, CEO of UnitedHealthcare, Pacific Northwest States”