The State of Leadership in Healthcare for Women of Color

Team of doctor and nurse hard at work to care for their patients and using technology to analyse their files and results

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By Joseph Webb, DSc, FACHE

According to the World Health Organization, women make up 70% of the workforce in healthcare but account for just 25% of leadership roles. In the U.S., women make up around 80% of healthcare workers and just 20% of leadership roles in hospitals. When considering all healthcare companies, the number is just 4%. 

For women of color, the picture is even more bleak as they make up just 5% of C-suite roles. McKinsey & Company reports that women of color hold just 7% of VP roles and only 4% of senior VP roles in healthcare. 

According to Lean In, The State of Black Women in Corporate America, one of the biggest issues is the “broken rung” factor where Black women aren’t promoted into management-level positions. The report states that “for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 58 Black women are promoted, despite the fact that Black women ask for promotions at the same rate as men.” This results in a widening gap in representation at every subsequent leadership level.

One reason women aren’t promoted to entry level management positions is that they lack support from their managers. Just 24% of Black women surveyed said they have the sponsorship they need to advance their careers and just 29% said their manager advocates for them with new opportunities. This is not the case at Nashville General Hospital. 

“We recognize the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles, especially Black women, and have taken proactive steps to make sure our organization is the antithesis of this norm,” says Joseph Webb, DSc, FACHE, CEO of NGH. “We feel that having Black women in leadership roles is crucial to helping end health disparities in the communities we serve.” As of today, 80% of the NGH leadership team is made up of women. Of those, 50% are women of color (30% black and 20% nonwhite). 

Webb points out four “phenomenal Black women” who serve leadership roles at NGH. The women recently shared their experiences and insights into the challenges and opportunities for women of color in healthcare.

Melanie Thomas, MBA, serves as chief information officer at NGH. Melanie has more than 20 years of experience in information services and healthcare operations. Since joining NGH, she has focused on updating the hospital’s network infrastructure, improving system process, and building relationships with physicians and other staff. She’s been instrumental in bringing new service line opportunities to fruition while also improving opportunities for improvement in existing product lines.

Kelly Clarkson, MHA, is another great leader at NGH. Kelly serves as the program director for the health system’s Congregational Health & Education Network. CHEN, as it’s called, is a growing faith-based network that currently consists of 110 congregations. It’s well known that certain populations, like African Americans, rely heavily on faith-based organizations. Now a 501(c)(3) organization, CHEN was established to reduce health disparities by addressing social determinants of health. This includes food insecurity, education attainment, access to safe housing and reliable transportation, and access to healthcare. Kelly serves a critical role in attaining the NGH mission of improving the health in the communities they serve, one neighborhood at a time.

Ella Clay and Sheila Peters are pastors and also serve in leadership roles at CHEN. Ella is pastor at Historic First Community Church and co-founder of Project Connect Nashville. The goal of Project Connect is to alleviate poverty by demonstrating the love of Christ through the healing of broken relationships and by connecting people with community, educational, and vocational resources. 

Sheila Peters is a clinical psychologist and college professor at Fisk University. Sheila is pastor at Braden Memorial United Methodist Church. Her role with CHEN is to provide a safe, nurturing environment for individuals, couples, families and children to address personal challenges. This includes vulnerable populations like youth who are at risk of entering the juvenile justice system. Sheila uses a variety of therapeutic approaches including cognitive behavioral therapy. 

Balancing Professional Roles

“I have two young children under the age of 11 and a stepson who is 29,” says Melanie, who believes success lies in finding a balance. She believes whole-heartedly in the concept of “it takes a village.” “I couldn’t do what I do without a great support team who allow me to do my job without worrying about the safety of my children.” Kristen agrees and notes that the African American community has a long history of helping each other raise their families.

Sheila agrees as well. While she doesn’t have children of her own, Sheila is actively involved in the lives of her 5-year-old niece and 2-year-old nephew. “It’s all about balance and prioritization of things that matter the most,” she says. Playing with her niece and nephew allows Sheila to “be more creative,” which also compliments the roles she serves in the community. 

Ella sees balance as an ongoing pursuit, such as when she become a pastor after the sudden passing of her husband. “I do it because God asked me to and I knew I was able.”  

Aid of Mentorship

The role of mentorship is one that is highly valued across the board. “We have 70 student organizations run by young women who have seen a need and take action,” says Sheila. “We have women who are mentoring elementary students, preparing them for future roles in leadership.” Kristen, who graduated from Fisk, was a recipient of this preparation and credits mentorship in helping her develop her leadership skills.

Melanie, who says she was mentored by her mom’s female friends who were executives, plays it forward by providing mentorship to other women. “Technology is a very male dominated field and I have had to learn how to assert myself so that I’m not overshadowed.” At the same time, Melanie continues to be mentored by others. “I have mentors who have helped me learn how to negotiate salaries,” she says. “We so often sell ourselves short.”

Experience of Bias

“We’ve all experienced bias in the workplace, such as unequal pay, double standards, and harassment,” says Sheila. “When we’re tough, we’re seen differently than our male counterparts are.” Sheila says she was excited when Ketanji Brown Jackson was nominated to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court upon Stephen Breyer’s retirement announcement. She was in awe at how Ms. Jackson maintained her dignity and professionalism throughout the hearing, no matter how challenging or contentious the questioning became.

According to Melanie, female executives in healthcare have to work harder to prove themselves. Sheila agrees, “We have to educate young women about these biases while still assuring them they can do anything they want.”

[CALLOUT] “We’ve all experienced the scenario where women are brought into clean things up but then the clean slate is offered to a man.” 

Outlets for Stress Relief

For anyone in senior leadership roles, managing stress is essential. For women, who often bear the brunt of family responsibilities along with their careers, it’s even more important. Across the board, prayer stood out as the top way to do so. Mindfulness, self-care, maintaining your health, getting enough sleep, making art, and taking time off were also touted. 

“We juggle so many roles,” says Ella. “Mindfulness allows us to stop, pause, and let thoughts funnel through so we can better pay attention to what we’re thinking.” Melanie agrees. “Meditation lets us focus inwardly, helping us to settle our thoughts and get a clearer picture of what is happening around us.” 

Sheila sums it up well, “I don’t’ care if you have an upscale luxury car or a tiny car, if you are out of gas, you can’t move,” she says. “If we let ourselves run out of gas, we’re not good to anyone!”

The Journey Forward

“Nashville General is a stronger, more successful organization because of the strength of the women who serve in our leadership roles,” says Webb. “My hope is that our success will serve as a beacon to other organizations, showing them what they have to gain by addressing inequities at all levels.” 

Joseph Webb, DSc, FACHE, is chief executive officer of Nashville General Hospital.