While approximately 70 percent of healthcare employees in the world are women, the majority of these numbers are confined to specific roles and specialisations and exist largely in the lowest paid segments. For example, the overwhelming proportion of female workers are nurses, which has largely been considered a “feminine” role given its requirements for empathetic care. Furthermore, only specialisations like obstetrics and gynaecology see a higher proportion of women doctors. However, across the board the number of decision makers or higher paid positions whether surgeons or administrative are men. This is of course a problem across industries but in healthcare it becomes starker as the majority of the workers are women and therefore the hierarchical tiers do not reflect the employee base.
Dr Ushy Mohandas, Founder and President of Doctors Against Corruption believes that “Women have an equal opportunity to have their voice heard and must create a path for what they believe in. All people, irrespective of gender, must work hard to become leaders in their field. In healthcare, women need to be more participative in decision making and management. I would say – not just lean in but dive in!”
Global Gender studies, based on decades of research, have analysed the reasons for gender inequity into 3 categories – societal, institutional and personal. In the healthcare industry, one could argue that the nature of the industry itself needs a drastic overhaul. There are many subtle and obvious narratives in the system that need to be wiped away for gender blindness to become possible. While it is widely acknowledged that the nursing profession is seriously undervalued and treated as inferior (no matter how skilled) the top post one can aspire to is that of the Chief Nursing Officer. Even at that position, CNOs who have exceptional people management skills are rarely utilised at Board level. A very small ratio of women work in other administrative positions except as secretaries or front office staff. Unremarkably, in the sales function, which is the number one route to the top in any organisation women are practically unheard of. I recollect an experience where I was given charge of a 15 men sales team and the entire team (barring one member) resigned the next day. I had to work doubly hard to prove to them that I was worthy of that position and it was gratifying recently to have one of them come to invite me to his wedding and say that I was now a legend amongst the healthcare sales network in the city!
Dr Smitha Thammaiah, Medical Superintendent at one the top Hospitals in Bangalore has this to say: “When I started out I was told that women administrators in hospitals are a no-no. However, I did have some significant support along the way that recognised me on merit and didn’t perpetuate the stigmas attached to being a women and the narratives of personal issues etc . One advice I would have for women trying to get ahead in healthcare is to acquire subject matter expertise and stay ahead of the curve so that you are respected for your knowledge first and gender becomes irrelevant.”
While the onus clearly remains on women to push ahead (a position that is difficult in itself), and more men come forward as allies, it is time for the healthcare industry to be examined in a comprehensive manner by thought leaders and policy makers and practical changes brought in – from Boardrooms to the hospital wards.