Vital Signs Blog

Blog: Advice on shattering the glass ceiling in healthcare IT

Carla Smith HIMSS Carla Smith is executive vice president of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society.
LAS VEGAS—From the beginning, healthcare information technology has been a man's game, but we're long past the beginning.

Women have gained ground in health IT leadership, although recent survey data by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society indicates there's not merely a gender pay gap in the health IT profession, but a yawning chasm.

In a session at the HIMSS convention called, “Shattering the Glass Ceiling: Lessons Learned for Aspiring Female Executives,” HIMSS Executive Vice President Carla Smith shed light on the pay problem.

Of the 1,900 or so health IT leaders HIMSS surveyed last December, men reported receiving on average $126,000 compared with $101,000 for women. In nonmanagement positions, Smith said, “Women are making 80% of what their male counterparts make” and over time they “never reach parity” with their male counterparts.

Women in their first health IT executive positions start off making 63% less than men, Smith said. That's well worse than the widely reported 78% gender pay gap for all employment in the U.S.

The HIMSS report said evidence from the survey suggests “female health IT workers are being marginalized.”

“I firmly believe sunlight is the great disinfectant,” Smith said, which is why HIMSS added gender analysis to the survey.

The session's co-panelists were veteran IT leaders Deanna Wise, executive vice president and chief information officer at the 36-hospital Dignity Health system, and Sue Schade, interim CIO at eight-hospital system University Hospitals. She's also founder of Next Wave Health Advisors, a health IT consulting firm.

The panelists said it was important for employees to look at market statistics and understand what their job is worth.

And once they got in the door and up to the C-suite, "You need to make sure within your own organizations that men and women start out at parity," Schade said, “If you don't, this just gets worse over time.”

Wise said Dignity Health, which is 75% female, uses role-based job descriptions to promote diversity and equity.

"When you look at IT, we're about half-half. I'm proud of that,” she said.

Both Wise and Schade started out as programmers, so they developed technical expertise early in their careers and then added management training—both have MBAs—afterward, they said.

They also recommended identifying and learning from role models, both people to emulate and those not to follow, and to seek out mentors, either through a formal mentoring program at work, or by developing an informal mentoring relationship with someone trusted. Leaders should also pay back, they said.

“When you're in a leadership position, you owe it to other people to serve as a positive role model,” Schade said.

Bronwen Raymer, one of five master's degree students from the University of Washington attending the session, asked whether the panelists had experienced resistance to their leadership based on gender bias.

“Let's get it right out on the table and use the 'B' word,” Schade said. Women, when they are assertive, can be negatively perceived, she said.

But each woman's style may be different. “You have to find your own comfort level,” Schade said.

“It's not always about how aggressive you are but how genuine you are,” Wise said. “It's about gathering the information and pushing for what you value.”

Another attendee asked each panelist to talk about their hardest challenge as IT leaders.

For Schade, it was a period when she was the only female manager at her hospital system “and there were two guys who were out to get me,” she said. One spread a rumor that she only got the job because she was related to a board member, Schade said.

“He personally threatened me at one point,” she said. Her advice to anyone put in that position was, “Don't put up with crap. It takes time and energy that you don't have.”

“I let the boss deal with it,” Schade said. “He's not where I am in my career, so his behavior didn't serve him well.”

In an interview after the panel discussion, Schade said gender bias has eased “but there's more we can do.”

Encouraging female students to take courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will help, Schade said. She said HIMSS will be developing a program to encourage more women to take health IT leadership roles as well.


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