“I've always been a pretty optimistic person,” she says, recalling why she moved from nursing into management. “So I was always like, 'I think if I could be the manager, I could make this work better for people.' ”
Tavenner points to three challenges facing women healthcare executives. She notes that women tend to be drawn to clinician roles, but emphasizes that they need to be comfortable understanding the financial workings of healthcare delivery.
“Really learn finance and how finance works,” she says.
Women also need to take risks, she adds. “You can't just work in your comfort zone,” she says. “Maybe be willing to take the job that everyone else isn't migrating to and make it work for you.”
Finally, women and men need to be comfortable working together. “You've got to make sure you have diversity represented in your management team,” she says.
Industry reports and government data show women still remain significantly underrepresented in executive suites across healthcare. A study last year from Rock Health, a group that supports digital health startups, found that women make up only 18% of hospital CEOs and 4% of healthcare company CEOs.
Citing 2011 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as well as industry reports, the study found that while women accounted for 73% of medical and health services managers and 47% of recent medical school graduates, the numbers fell off further up the ranks.
“The needle is moving, but it's moving slowly,” says Deborah Bowen, incoming president and CEO at the American College of Healthcare Executives. Hospital boardrooms don't reflect the communities they serve, and “we know that diversity in leadership is one of our challenges.”
But women who have broken through the barriers attest to an industry that's more welcoming of female leaders and to more female voices being added to the discussion about the future of healthcare.
When several of this year's Top 25 Women honorees were asked what guidance they would give to young women in their field, two pieces of advice stood out: find a mentor who believes in you and don't be afraid to take risks.
Leah Binder did exactly that at the start of her career at the National League for Nursing, where she handled policy and communications. “I was mentored by two extremely fabulous women,” she says, naming Pamela Maraldo, the organization's former CEO, and Claire Fagin, the first female dean of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Nursing.
Binder is president and CEO of the Leapfrog Group, a self-described industry watchdog, particularly in the area of patient safety. It is best known for its hospital quality and safety survey, and recently introduced an updated hospital safety score, which grades facilities on how well they prevent medical errors, accidents, injuries and infections.
The group is now focused on outcomes in maternity care, Binder says, and its most recent focus has been on early elective deliveries, or those that occur before 39 weeks without a medical reason. In February, it released data showing that the number of reporting hospitals with an elective delivery rate of less than 5% had increased to 46% from 39% in 2011.
“We're going to advocate for transparency because that's the secret sauce,” Binder said.
Binder notes that her early years at the National League for Nursing helped shape how she views healthcare delivery. “I see the healthcare world from the nursing model of care,” she says, citing patient centeredness, care coordination and whole-patient care as its key attributes.
Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, who heads the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, cited an African proverb when asked about her advice to young female health professionals: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”
It's also the way she confronts some of the country's most pressing public health issues as president and CEO of the RWJF, a philanthropic organization that tackles issues such as childhood obesity and healthcare accessibility.