Blog Post

Breaking Down Leadership Stereotypes on International Women's Day

Date: 
Mar. 07, 2016

By Sunita Mutha, MD, Director

On International Women's Day I want to make the case for advancing women as leaders in health care, but not in the way you might expect.

I don’t want to complain about the fact that women make up just 34 percent of executives at the top 100 hospitals or 21 percent of board members at Fortune 500 health care companies. Health care organizations, in addition to every man, woman and child who receives health care in this country, will benefit from higher value care when we reach parity in these types of roles. Yes, we need to close the confidence gap, and yes, women need to ‘lean in.’ But, that’s not my point, at least not right now.

Instead, I’d like to present an alternative vision of leadership.

I grew up with my own stereotype of leaders. I thought of leaders as demonstrating confidence, authority, mastery and never showing emotion. These stereotypes largely came from my role models and professional experiences. But, over time, I have reshaped and broadened my definition of leadership.

This February, I spoke to a group of health care leaders at the opening day of one of our signature programs, the California Health Care Foundation Health Care Leadership Program. I explained to this group of physicians, nurses and other clinicians that during this two-year program they would have transformational experiences — their openness and willingness to be vulnerable  would guarantee their personal and professional growth.

As I discussed this subject, I became visibly emotional. And it wasn’t the first time I became emotional in a similar setting. The first time it happened, I saw it as a sign of weakness. In the past, I apologized to my audience, but now, I owned it. I told my audience the truth: Sometimes, I show emotion when it comes to things I deeply care about, and I deeply care about their ability to realize their full potential as leaders.  After my talk, several men and women in the audience approached me to say they thought it was a powerful moment. So often, they said, they present themselves as unemotional leaders, but for me to model that it’s ok to be emotional and passionate at a time when I was telling them to be vulnerable, open and make the most of this experience, sent a strong message that they can show up in different ways.

Narrow definitions of leadership are detrimental to the health workforce, the patients we serve and even the bottom line.

Companies with women in leadership positions have a higher return on sales (84% advantage), a higher return on invested capital (60% advantage) and a higher return on equity (46% advantage). It’s time for us to take full advantage of our entire workforce, and for women to lead. The stakes are too high to do anything else. As soon as we embrace leadership diversity, the healthier we will all become.