Candace Wallace

One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been the attention it has brought to long-standing gender disparity in the workplace.

That heightened awareness, however, came at a steep cost as pandemic challenges such as childcare increased stress on women and prompted many to leave or consider leaving their jobs.

According to the Pew Research Center, 2.4 million women left the workforce from February 2020 to February 2021, compared to 1.8 million men.

As Arti Masturzo, M.D., vice president of clinical innovations at Humana, said in a recent webinar about gender disparities, “COVID was a catastrophe for women,” and the fallout could have repercussions for years to come as women who do reenter the workforce will often have to reprove themselves.

The good news is healthcare organizations seem to be responding. A recent survey found that 62% of organizations polled have diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in place, and 90% of them support those initiatives with training.

But we still have a long way to go, particularly throughout post-acute care. The same study revealed that the lowest participation in DEI initiatives was reported by post-acute care respondents, at just under half (49%). This can have grave implications for patient outcomes and staff well-being. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up around 75% of the healthcare workforce. Yet, they only hold a third of key leadership roles, and women of color fill only 11% of senior manager/director roles.

So, what can healthcare organizations do to improve gender equity? First – and most importantly – they must adopt intentional, organization-wide efforts to remove structural barriers and enhance career pathways for women leaders. And they must make a long-term commitment from the top. 

We recently issued a white paper that lays out four other key steps organizations can take to make progress.

Assess your current state of gender diversity. To make progress, you need to take a deep dive to get a good read on gender ratios, not only across your organization but also for leadership roles up and down the hierarchy.

 Katie Bell, global healthcare consultant at Korn Ferry, urged executives and boards to take action. 

“One of the things you can do is conduct a diagnostic to better understand the institutional and structural barriers that are preventing women from getting ahead.” 

She explained that many organizations are going through this process right now because the board is stating a goal. 

“It’s setting that goal but then diagnosing what is missing and what we need to fix.” 

This could be looking at payroll can help assess gender pay gaps. For example, women make up the majority of the nursing workforce, yet’s 2020 nurse salary survey found that male nurses made over $7,200 more than their women coworkers – a more than $1,600 increase from two years prior. 

Other areas to look at are whether performance criteria for promotions are transparent and communicated effectively, and whether you’re considering a diverse slate of candidates for promotion at every level. 

Redesign career pathways. Existing career pathways still carry traces of the outdated and stereotypical model of men focusing on their careers and women taking responsibility for children and households. 

We all know the “motherhood penalty” is real. To reduce gender disparity and increase promotions for women, organizations need to build in systems to help mothers, fathers and all caregivers thrive as caretakers and high-performing leaders. This is a seismic cultural shift, but leaders can accelerate change with structural redesigns that might include improving and normalizing leave policies for women and men and embracing flexible work schedules. It might also include on-site or subsidized childcare.

Empowerment and professional development. While the pandemic increased burnout and frustration among nurses, it also showcased how ready nurses are to step into leadership roles. Organizations should tap into this by empowering nurses to pursue leadership development opportunities at every stage of their careers, and then promoting them. Relias Clinical Solutions Partner Lora Sparkman, MHA, RN, recently spoke to her own experience transitioning from a bedside nurse to a nursing director.

“If you want to be in the business of being a leader, there’s some business acumen that you have to acquire,” she said.

Beyond mentoring. Mentoring has long been a tool for helping women move up the career ladder. But companies should also consider adopting sponsorship programs. Sponsorship is a more formal arrangement between rising stars and members of an organization’s leadership team. 

The arrangements generally include built-in accountability to ensure sponsors are providing guidance on career development, connecting rising leaders to development training and resources, helping them gain new assignments and promotions, and helping them build connections with other members of the leadership team. 

Bell also acknowledged the power of personal action, saying “It’s about asking. We all see people at work who are really impressive and think ‘Gosh I want to be like them’…get out there, talk to them, and ask them if they’d be willing to be someone to help coach and mentor you through your career.” And remember, sponsors don’t have to be women or leaders of color. Research shows that it’s the quality of the mentoring rather than the mentor’s demographics that matter most.

These are the building blocks that highlight the importance of transparency into processes, promotions and measurement. They will determine how and if the healthcare industry moves forward. In patient safety and improving outcomes, we apply these concepts each day. The same should go for the environment we create for our employees. Masturzo underscores this sentiment saying, “leadership should reflect the general population…when organizations look at data and are transparent sharing that data, that’s when we can make a change.” 

So yes, COVID-19 has been a challenge for women in many ways, but it also presents a great opportunity to capitalize on the heightened awareness of diversity and equity issues to finally effect real change. Now is the time to build a more equitable environment for women and other marginalized groups. Let’s all maximize our efforts to create positive change, together. 

Candace Wallace serves as the Chief Customer Officer where she leads the entire Client Care organization at Relias. She previously served as the Senior Vice President of the Solutions Group, a team comprised of industry and technology experts responsible for delivering professional services, such as clinical consultation and population health management.

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.